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Why Emmy-Nominated Scientology, Kurt Cobain Docs Could Be Overlooked by Oscars

The films have 14 separate nominations at the Creative Arts Emmys, which could brand them as TV movies in the eyes of Oscar voters


Two of the high-profile films that will be in the running for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature later this year will come to the Oscar race with an unusual pedigree: Emmy nominations.

Alex Gibney‘s “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” and Brett Morgen’s “Cobain: Montage of Heck” will be competing for Emmy Awards in seven categories each at Saturday’s Creative Arts Emmys. And that could be a problem for the films, according to some in the doc community who think Emmy recognition has the potential to brand the films as TV movies in the eyes of Oscar voters.

“If the fact that we were on television and received Emmy nominations hurts us, then that’s what happens,” said Morgen, a member of the Motion Picture Academy’s Documentary Branch. “We made the film without any insurance we would even have an Oscar-qualifying run, and the seven Emmy nominations were beyond our wildest dreams. It’s not up to me to decide if my branch considers us for an Academy Award.”

But Morgen, one of the few filmmakers willing to talk about this subject to TheWrap, also said that “Montage of Heck” was designed to be shown in theaters, where the Nirvana frontman’s music could be played at high volume and his intricate sound collages could be heard in all their detail. “I think we made a true commitment to theatrical exhibition and a true commitment to television exhibition,” he said.

Lines are increasingly blurring in the non-fiction world, where TV entities like HBO Documentary Films and PBS are far more active at financing documentaries than any feature-film studios. And the arrival of Netflix as a major player in original programming and documentaries changes things even more.

“I think Netflix really challenges all the existing models,” said Morgen. “What is it? Is it theatrical or TV? We are at a point where these lines have completely blurred.”

To qualify for the Oscars, a documentary must have one-week theatrical runs in both Los Angeles and New York before it airs on television – and it’s not unusual for HBO and others to back these qualifying runs in order to capitalize on the visibility an Oscar nomination can bring.

The Television Academy, meanwhile, has a rule that an Oscar-qualifying run does not disqualify a film from the Emmy race, as long as it was financed by a television entity. And this year, they loosened the rules even further to say that TV-backed docs could compete for Emmys in the nonfiction programming categories regardless of the length of their theatrical runs.

A number of films have been up for Emmys after being nominated for or even winning Oscars in recent years, with “The Square,” “Gasland,” “Paradise Lost 3” and this year’s Oscar nominees “Citizenfour,” “Virunga” and “Last Days in Vietnam” all making that transition.

But no film in the last decade has been up for the Oscars after being in the running for Emmys, and the prospect has led to this year’s confusion.

“For a few years, Morgan Spurlock has been talking about being ‘platform agnostic,’ and more and more other documentary filmmakers are coming to the same viewpoint,” filmmaker A.J. Schnack told TheWrap. “There’s a great deal of excitement in the new approaches and resources being brought into the doc world by a growing group of content providers, from Netflix to Amazon and more it seems each day.

“The question for the Documentary Branch at the Academy is one they’ve wrestled with before: Are they honoring the very best films of the year no matter the reach or the platform, or are they honoring the best that played in a significant number of movie theaters?”

Schnack also points to HBO’s newfound openness to letting their films play highly visible theatrical runs the way “Montage of Heck” did, as opposed to the quiet one-week bookings in out-of-the-way theaters that used to be the cable giant’s trademark for qualifying its docs.

“The fact that HBO is working with many of our top filmmakers to craft some of the best cinematic work of the year – and they are losing their previous resistance to high profile theatrical runs that precede their HBO broadcast – complicates that question for the Academy,” he said.

The Academy tried to deal with the confusion a couple of years ago, when the lines between theatrical and television were not quite as blurred as they are now. A change in Oscar documentary rules that required a review in the New York or Los Angeles Times was partially aimed at keeping made-for-TV docs out of the Oscar race, since those films often had stealth qualifying runs and did not solicit reviews.

“Too often, we are having to vote for films that are essentially television documentaries trying to get an Oscar,” director Michael Moore, who spearheaded the changes, told TheWrap at the time.

“Television has its own award. It’s called the Emmy. It’s a good award. I like it. I have one. But you don’t see movies like ‘The King’s Speech’ win Oscars and then go to TV and qualify for Emmys.”

Morgen admitted that he’s made a similar argument to his colleagues in the past. “Years ago I would get in arguments with other documentary filmmakers, saying, ‘Look, I don’t believe a film should be eligible for an Oscar and an Emmy,'” he said. “It doesn’t make sense. It would not happen with a fiction film. When it happens in documentarians, doesn’t that diminish us? Shouldn’t one be forced to commit to either broadcast or theatrical?”

He laughed. “That puts me in a weird quandary, because I did submit ‘Montage of Heck’ in both spaces. But all of us in documentaries know that the reality is that most of the money coming into non-fiction is from broadcast. If we limited the documentary Academy Awards to films that did not take money from television, it would be a very small pool.”

But it’s one thing to enter the Oscar race with money from television – it’s another, perhaps, to enter the race with an Emmy or two already on your shelf, as “Montage of Heck” and “Going Clear” could do after this weekend.

“Ultimately, films like ‘Going Clear’ and ‘Montage of Heck’ are the canaries in the coal mine for this question: can you play by the Academy’s rules (theatrical first) but still be considered too ‘television’ for a ‘theatrical’ award?” said Schnack.

“If so, the branch may come to view the Emmy nods as the appropriate recognition for those films. Or has the branch come to realize that home screens are the more likely platform by which audiences will view their work? In that case, the Emmy nods could be more precursor than disqualifier.”

Whether the Emmys turn out to be precursor or disqualifier, this year’s unprecedented juxtaposition could also push the Motion Picture Academy to try to define the ever-shifting, ever-blurring line between theatrical and television.

“I think we should define that line,” said Morgen. “I think until the rules are defined, all bets are off.”