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Oscars: Documentary ‘O.J.: Made in America’ Passes First Academy Test

Variety logo Variety 12/6/2016 Kristopher Tapley
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It’s standard to brace yourself for any egregious omissions from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ annual initial culling of the documentary feature race. The exclusion of films including “Capitalism: A Love Story,” “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” “Catfish,” and “Project Nim” from the shortlist in recent years has raised eyebrows.

This year, however, there were relatively few noteworthy absentees. The same six films that have led the discussion and were well-represented by the International Documentary Assn. and the Cinema Eye Honors — “Cameraperson,” “Fire at Sea,” “I Am Not Your Negro,” “O.J.: Made in America,” “13th” and “Weiner” — all made the cut. Art house favorites like Andrew Dominik’s “One More Time with Feeling” and Robert Greene’s “Kate Plays Christine” would have been welcome inclusions for many, but by and large, the Academy whittled things down to a relatively inarguable list.

However, there is the lingering sense in some quarters that Ezra Edelman’s “O.J.: Made in America” isn’t competing on the same playing field. An 8-hour opus made by ESPN that premiered as a “special event” at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, the movie received an Oscar-qualifying theatrical run on May 20, which technically makes it eligible. And what’s more, the film will qualify for an Emmy next year as the television premiere of the series just missed the May 31 cut-off for this year’s awards.

The line between film and TV is increasingly blurred, but Edelman’s film is still rocking the status quo. It’s certainly not unheard of for a film to receive both an Oscar and an Emmy nomination — Netflix’s “The Square,” for instance, was Oscar-nominated for best documentary feature two years ago and then went on to net four Emmy bids, winning for outstanding directing, cinematography and picture editing in nonfiction programming. That film, like Edelman’s, made the cut thanks to exclusionary language in the Television Academy’s rules and procedures.

Other examples include “Cartel Land,” “What Happened, Miss Simone?” and “Citizenfour.” So perhaps calling on that group to be even stricter in its language would keep films from playing both sides of the line.

Per official TV Academy documentation:

“‘General theatrical release’ shall not include either or both (A) exhibitions made for purposes of fulfilling Award requirements (e.g. festival Awards, the Oscars) if such exhibition occurs only at one or more film festivals and/or in limited theatrical release of not more than seven days in not more than two (2) cities and (B) exhibitions made for the purpose of meeting ‘initial limited theatrical pre-release’ requirements for foreign theatrical exhibition by a motion picture distributor or financier provided that evidence of the requirement for an initial limited theatrical release is acceptable to the Awards Committee and that theatrical exhibitions prior to the airing or Internet exhibition of the television program do not exceed an aggregate of up to seventy (70) days prior exhibitions in not more than ten (10) U.S. cities. Showing a foreign television program that otherwise qualifies as an eligible foreign co-production under the Rules shall not be disqualified because of a prior limited theatrical release.”

Beyond the aforementioned Oscar frontrunners for this year, strong possibilities for nominations include Sony Classics’ “The Eagle Huntress” (a focused push for the distributor this year), J. Clay Tweel’s emotional “Gleason” and Keith Maitland’s animated “Tower.”

“O.J.: Made in America” has already won the top documentary prize from the Gotham Awards, the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle. It also won the editing prize from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.

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