Why the Emmys Documentary Race Looks So Much Like the Oscars Doc Race

TheWrap Oscar magazine: Four of the five Oscar-nominated nonfiction films are back competing for Emmys, because the Television Academy doesn’t mind a little double-dipping

Last Updated: August 24, 2019 @ 11:00 AM

This story about the Emmys documentary race first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.

If you loved this year’s Academy Awards documentary race, we’ve got good news for you: All your faves are back.

The rock-climbing saga “Free Solo,” which won the Oscar, has seven Emmy nominations.

The Ruth Bader Ginsburg bio, “RBG,” has four, including one in the Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking category, where it’ll be up against its fellow Oscar nominee “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” (and against “Three Identical Strangers,” which was short-listed but not nominated by the Motion Picture Academy).

And in the Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special category you’ll find a fourth Oscar nominee, “Minding the Gap.”

All of those films had theatrical releases to qualify for the Oscars before heading to TV, but that’s OK with the Emmys, as long as the theatrical release doesn’t exceed an aggregate total of 70 days. And even if it does, a film can still qualify in the Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking category, as long as it was financed by a company that primarily produces TV, that company had creative input and it had committed to a TV airing at the time of release.

(It also needs to show social impact, innovation of form or mastery of technique to qualify in the category.)

The result is a series of documentary categories in which the four Oscar nominees compete against films like Dan Reed’s Michael Jackson expose “Leaving Neverland,” Alex Gibney’s “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley,” Alexis Bloom’s “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes,” Rudy Valdez’ “The Sentence,” showbiz docs about Jane Fonda (“Jane Fonda in 5 Acts”) and Gilda Radner (“Love, Gilda”) and two different films about the ill-fated Fyre festival.

HBO dominates, as it almost always does, though Netflix, CNN Films, Nat Geo, PBS, Hulu and A&E are represented as well. And by the way — an Oscar nominee has won one of the two top nonfiction Emmys for the last four years in a row, though 2015’s “Citizenfour” was the only Oscar winner to turn the trick.

“Free Solo” landed the most nominations, even though it is absent from the two main program categories for nonfiction; instead, the harrowing story of rock climber Alex Honnold’s unassisted ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan is nominated for cinematography, picture editing, sound editing and mixing, music and creative achievement in interactive media.

But don’t take that to mean that “Free Solo” was simply a technical achievement, even though it took an enormous amount of planning (and daring) to capture Honnold on the sheer rock face he was scaling.

“By far the hardest part was not physical, it was the emotional, mental aspect of it,” said Jimmy Chin, who is nominated for directing the film with his wife, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi.

Chin said the moral and ethical questions that came up during the early planning stages of “Free Solo” were so serious that he almost didn’t go through with the project. His team was so worried about Honnold dying during his climb that they met the night before to prepare for the
worst.

“You have to think about potential outcomes,” he said. “It was a table of some of the gnarliest, heaviest expedition climbers and cinematographers in our business all sitting around the table crying. It was heavy. You had to have a protocol: Who’s the point of contact for a rescue scenario, or potentially a body-recovery scenario?”

Dan Reed’s “Leaving Neverland” had five nominations, second most among nonfiction films — and the two-part, four-hour film may have stirred up the most furor after its Sundance premiere, as fans of Michael Jackson challenged the stories of sexual abuse told by James Safechuck and Wade Robson, who had defended the singer when he was on trial 14 years ago.

“It does seem contradictory that a man would say one thing in 2005 and something completely different in 2017,” Reed said. “That’s the beauty of having a broad canvas to be able to tell a story which encompasses two decades.

“I think that by the end of it you really do understand why Wade was compelled — because he loved Michael — to support him on the witness stand and that why, subsequently, he could no longer reconcile himself with not speaking the truth.”

FOR THE RECORD: The original version of this story said Sam Bisbee was the director of “The Sentence.” Rudy Valdez is the director.

EmmyWrap Down to the Wire cover

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