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A New Rule Will Prevent Multi-Part Documentaries Like ‘O.J.: Made in America’ From Winning Future Oscars

O.J. Simpson
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This year’s Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature was O.J.: Made in America, Ezra Edelman’s epic examination of O.J. Simpson’s life, career, and the murder trial that captivated the American imagination. It was an incredible achievement in non-fiction filmmaking; not just the best doc of 2016 but the best film of any kind of 2016 (at least according to the schlub who runs this website). Its Academy Award was richly deserved.

It was not without controversy, though. Some Made in America critics claimed the film should not be considered for an Oscar because it was produced by ESPN, which broke up the 460-minute film into parts and aired it as separate episodes on television. Edelman considered O.J.: Made in America a movie, and it played in theaters before it appeared on TV, at both film festivals and in arthouses around the country. It met the criteria required to be eligible for an Oscar.

But now the criteria have changed. The Academy has announced that multi-part docs like O.J. can never again win the Best Documentary Oscar. Via The Hollywood Reporter, the new rule states “multi-part or limited series are not eligible for awards consideration.”

The Academy also amended the rules governing how the nominees in the Best Animated Feature category will be chosen. Previously a nominating committee selected the five nominees, which were then voted on by the entire Academy. Now the entire Academy will pick the nominees, which THR theorizes “could end up favoring more popular wide releases from the mainstream studios.” In recent years, the nominating committee has included tiny indies like The Red Turtle alongside mainstream fare like Zootopia.

But the more galling problem, to me, is this documentary rule change. The Academy Awards are crucial for the box-office life of many films, but they’re particularly important to documentaries, which often face a tough uphill climb to attract large audiences — and that’s especially true of long films on serious and sensitive topics. The takeaway, in essence, is an inducement to filmmakers not to go too in depth with their work, lest they run the risk of making a film that’s so long it removes itself from Oscar contention. The 90-minute version of Made in America would have won no awards. I’m glad we got the full film, and I’m glad it won. I’m just sorry we won’t see more films like it in contention in the future.

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