Emmy Awards Have A Documentary Problem

Keire Johnson in Minding the Gap. Photo by Hulu.

When the 71st Emmy Award nominations were announced, a number of Oscar-nominated documentaries received several nominations.

While I am excited for some of the Emmy nominations this year, I remain disappointed in the continued documentary overlap between the Oscars and Emmys.  This is also one of those areas in which I find myself in high agreement with Steven Spielberg.  The director has certainly let his feelings be widely known when it comes to Netflix. This is about more than just Netflix.  After receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, Minding the Gap earned Hulu a nomination for what is essentially the same category at the Emmys. This is just wrong.

It isn’t just Hulu. Films that campaign for the Oscars will almost always air on television a few months after their theatrical release and are thus eligible for the Emmys.  This doesn’t stop producers or studios from campaigning them for both awards.  Not only is this certainly frustrating but it prevents other deserving films from being nominated.  There are other documentaries out there that have lower budgets when it comes to campaigning.  They certainly get shut out of the conversation against the higher-funded films.

“Emmys and Oscars are meant to highlight the best of television and movies so why do the same 3-5 highly-resourced documentaries get trotted out for both awards year after year?” Half the Picture filmmaker Amy Adrion tells Solzy at the Movies.   “When that happens, a couple of docs dominate the conversation for months/years while many other equally deserving films are completely ignored.  Worst of all, it’s boring.  Like, didn’t I just see #FYC ads for this film at the Oscars?  Audiences and filmmakers deserve better – there are many incredible documentaries worth celebrating.”

Alex Honnold climbs up El Capitan in California's Yosemite National Park in Free Solo.
Alex Honnold climbs up El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park in Free Solo. Courtesy of National Geographic Documentary Films.

Lets take a look at the initial Oscar shortlist to see which films got nominated:

  • Charm City 0
  • Communion 0
  • Crime + Punishment 0
  • Dark Money 0
  • The Distant Barking of Dogs 0
  • Free Solo 7
  • Hale County This Morning, This Evening 1
  • Minding the Gap 1
  • Of Fathers and Sons 0
  • On Her Shoulders 0
  • RBG 4
  • Shirkers 0
  • The Silence of Others 0
  • Three Identical Strangers 3
  • Won’t You Be My Neighbor? 0

Among these films, Free Solo; Hale County This Morning, This Evening, Minding the Gap, Of Fathers and Sons, and RBG would go on to be nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars.  The Oscar-nominated films combined for 13 Emmy nominations yesterday.  The shortlisted films also earned a combined 16 nominations.  This is insane.  I get that these films also aired on TV but if you’re eligible for both the Oscars and Emmys, you need to choose one or the other.  This is probably something that The Academy really needs to work on!  Taking a look at their rules and you can certainly see that there is nothing prohibiting an Oscar-nominated documentary from being submitted for an Emmy Award.

What about those films that did campaign for Best Documentary but failed to make the shortlist?  There were 166 features that were submitted for Oscar consideration.  A few of them went on to earn Emmy nominations.  Some of them were among those to get nominated for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special, including Love, Gilda; Jane Fonda in Five Acts.  These films join the Oscar-nominated Minding the Gap among others.  This is Icarus all over again!  The 2018 Oscar winner would also earn three Emmy nominations.  One year earlier in 2017, O.J. Made in America would win the Oscar and two Emmys out of six nominations.

Take a look at the category of Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking.  Two films were up for an Oscar while the other three films were campaigned for the Oscars.  There’s been a lot of leeway in the documentary categories over the years but it’s honestly time to say that films can be campaigned for one or the other but not both.

While the Emmys will air in a few months from now, I’m not really looking forward to having the exact same conversation next year.  Enough is enough!

The 71st Emmy Awards will air September 22, 2019 at 8 PM ET/5 PM PT on FOX.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.