The Academy’s made a change to the Oscars that would have disallowed a 2017 winner. This year’s award for Best Documentary Feature went to O.J.: Made in America, a 7 1/2-hour work that was produced by ESPN and aired on that network after an initial showing at the Sundance Film Festival. Though it was generally agreed that the film was of high quality and certainly had significant things to say about the state of society and the criminal justice system, some cried foul over the idea of a multi-part limited-run series being given an award normally reserved for one-part, non-series films.
The Academy listened to arguments on both sides of the sometimes-heated O.J.: Made in America debate and arrived at a determination that will not come as good news to filmmakers hoping to score Oscar gold the way Ezra Edelman did with his multi-part breakdown of the O.J. Simpson story.
As reported by Deadline, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has decreed that henceforth “multi-part or limited series are not eligible for awards consideration.” Had that rule existed last year, O.J.: Made in America would not only not have won the Oscar, it would not even have been nominated. This fact may come as cold comfort to the makers of Fire At Sea, I Am Not Your Negro, 13th and Life, Animated, the four films that were beaten out by the O.J. movie.
A second rule change announced by the Academy (via Dark Horizons) could have big implications for the Best Animated Film category. In the past, only a select group of people involved in the animated film world were allowed to be part of the nominating process for that category, but now the Academy is opening that up to all its eligible members. The Academy also will now use a preferential system rather than numerical voting for the award, the same way they do for Best Picture. Some argue this change will lead to more big-studio animated films scoring nominations, and fewer smaller movies getting a chance to wedge their way in.
When it comes to the new documentary film rules, there are some who argue this is simply a case of the film industry once again trying to assert superiority over TV by closing up a loophole that used to allow long-form projects to sneak into the Oscar conversation. For the Academy’s purposes, though, it makes sense to clarify what constitutes a genuine feature documentary and what does not, even if in a larger artistic sense such distinctions may seem somewhat less-than-significant.
At the end of the day, the people who voted certainly saw no problem with having it in the category; O.J.: Made in America was good enough to win the Best Documentary Feature award. But there were enough people on the other side of the argument to sway the Academy into making sure voters never have another chance to award Oscar gold to a documentary that technically qualifies as a series and not a feature.