Ever since O.J.: Made in America won the Oscar for Best Documentary earlier this year, I’ve been contemplating whether it should’ve even been eligible.
Though director Ezra Edelman insisted he always envisioned this seven-hour and 47-minute exploration of the life and times of O.J. Simpson as a movie, it was nevertheless produced by and predominantly watched on ESPN in five two-hour episodes, originally aired on different days. Even so, this opus still technically qualified for year-ending awards because it was given the necessary one-week run in at least one movie theater in Los Angeles during 2016. Since this is the only prerequisite to contend, there can be no debate about its specific qualifications. But questioning this rule and how it’s upheld nowadays pertains to the entirety and even survival of the entertainment industry, as the distinguishing line between film and television continues to blur like never before, going beyond subjective merit.
First, some necessary factoids regarding Academy Awards eligibility are in order for those not already privy to them. For a movie to qualify for the Oscars, it needs to play at least one movie theater in LA for a minimum of one week during the calendar year that the Academy Awards are rewarding, with the ceremony usually held early the following year. Though that may sound like a simple enough way to define which movies can contend, studios have been harmlessly fudging around with the rule for quite a while. An example: they will often release a movie only for one week late in a year without any fanfare – AKA no press and advertising money spent to get butts in seats – for the clear purpose of garnering a nomination, and then will re-release it early the next year after securing a nomination with all the aforementioned fanfare promoting the achievement in hopes of higher box office returns.
Recently, however, a plethora of movies have been given these obligatory one-week qualifying runs without the second, higher profile re-release. This increasingly-frequent phenomenon is undeniably connected to the influx of new streaming services’ – and their corresponding television network affiliates’ – insatiable desire for as much content as possible. The HBO GOs/NOWs and Showtimes and Hulus and Vimeos and Amazons and Netflixs – not to mention video-on-demands – of the world rely on offering their subscribers as many different entertainment options as possible. Due to their seemingly bottomless budgets to pay top-tier talent to bring top-notch work to their platforms, more and more big-name filmmakers have gravitated towards television, bringing their cinematic prowess – and clout – with them.
This has perhaps been most evident in the field of documentary filmmaking. In 2016 alone, directors such as Ron Howard, Ava DuVernay, and Jim Jarmusch – all of whom previously helmed Academy Award-nominated fare and made their names in movie theaters – directed documentaries not primarily intended to play in theaters. Howard’s mouthful-of-a-title The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years was for Hulu; DuVernay’s 13TH was for Netflix; and Jarmusch’s Gimme Danger was for Amazon.
Though these did receive multi-week runs in a few theaters across the country, their theatrical releases were treated as mere afterthoughts with one clear purpose: qualifying for the Oscars (it’d be unfair not to point out that Howard’s doc did include a post-show Beatles concert only available in theaters). And this year, more and more non-documentary movies by big names are receiving this same one-week treatment. In the same way that movie studios count on nominations to bolster the receipts for their aforementioned re-releases, these television/streaming/VOD companies know that their subscribers will be more inclined to value and thus watch content that comes with the Academy-Award-quality-stamp-of-approval (though snobby cineastes – like me! – do not equate Oscar with quality, a vast majority of casual moviegoers definitely do).
More than the other examples above, the sole Oscar-intent of O.J.: Made in America’s release could not have been more transparent. Comparing it to Amy, last year’s winner, basically proves the validity of this argument. The latter was released in a total of 435 theaters and grossed a little less than $8.5 million. O.J.: Made in America, on the other hand, played in a total of two theaters and grossed…we have no fucking idea because ESPN chose not to report it, probably because they didn’t want voters to know how little they cared about the release. As much as the powers that be can claim they wanted to give people a chance to see it on the big screen, they did absolutely nothing to bring them to the theater.
Yes, O.J.: Made in America did premiere at the Sundance Film Festival as a traditional movie, and the director Ezra Edelman did claim he always approached it like he was making a traditional movie for theaters, not a TV docuseries nor a made-for-TV movie. But no one can look at the nature of its theatrical release and deny that anyone involved with the distribution of the movie only saw the big screen as an opportunity to enter the Academy Awards race.
And in my opinion, this is the crux of the issue. For a variety of reasons, the Oscars are the most culturally and historically significant awards in the entertainment industry. The box office bump that accompanies nominations is a testament to the legitimacy that they have in the eyes of most audiences. And then there’s this extremely important fact: When young cineastes like yours truly want a preliminary crash course in the history of mainstream American cinema, they often simply go through the list of Academy Award winners and watch them all. As such, when nominators and voters consider their choices, they should always keep in mind their role in chronicling the history of their art.
Yet many naysayers of this approach to voting believe that quality should be the only determining factor in someone’s decision. If quality is all that matters in regards to what should win an Academy Award, then O.J.: Made in America – whose exceptional quality is worthy of an Oscar – would be a very acceptable winner. But in the same way that I think voters should deemphasize the importance of their subjective taste in the name of prioritizing consciously choosing perhaps more timeless fare that better captures a year’s specific moment in time for the sake of history, I also feel that Academy Award voters should consider the cultural significance of their vote when deciding.
The solution is not as easy as simply expanding the eligibility rules. The Academy obviously shouldn’t require movies to make a certain amount of money to contend. And since theaters will of course only choose to play movies that add to their coffers, they will drop any box office bomb after one week, thus precluding more than a one-week prerequisite.
Instead, voters must be expected to use nothing more than common sense, which shouldn’t be too hard since most of them track theatrical releases and grosses and trends and such anyways. As long as critics and other insiders keep mentioning – and they should! – which movies clearly valued their releases and which finagled with the rules for the express purpose of winning an Oscar, voters have access to all the information they need to help their own industry.
If the Academy cares at all about preserving moviegoing for more than just big budget spectacles, then they should award movies that try to compel audiences to come to the theater. If smaller movies like documentaries can play only one week and then be found while scrolling through TV options on a couch at home, theaters in the not-too-distant future will be exclusively populated by superheroes and sequels.