How the Emmys reflect the current media landscape better than the Oscars

By now you’ve surely not only read the list of Emmy nominations but also caught on to the prevailing media hook around the announcement, that for the first time in 17 years HBO did not have the most nominations of any network. Instead that title has been claimed by Netflix, which secured 117 nodes to HBO’s still-impressive 108.

That the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, the organization behind the Emmys, would even allow such a thing – for a streaming content provider to so blatantly steal the thunder from a cable or broadcast network – shows it’s focused on format more than medium. On that point alone, it shows how much more forward-thinking it is than The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group organizing The Academy Awards.

AMPAS has for a while now been arguing amongst itself over what does and doesn’t qualify as a “movie.” Last October members of the Academy gathered to discuss that very issue, concerned that Netflix was going to continue to buy up award-worthy movies and then distribute them on the streaming service, four-walling a small amount of theatrical showings in order to qualify for Oscar consideration. That’s the approach it took for prestige features like Mudbound and others it hoped to secure nominations for.

Rumors and reports this past April that Netflix was mulling plans to purchase a small amount of theaters in LA and New York were centered on how that would give the company enough screens to meet minimum exhibition requirements.

The fear among the trade organization – at least what is publicly stated – is that Netflix is and will continue to water down what the term “movie” means. In the mind of AMPAS, a “movie” is defined not by its format but by its distribution. If it appears in theaters for a certain number of weeks, it’s a movie. If not, it’s television. Legendary director Steven Spielberg said that out loud in March during the publicity cycle for Ready Player One and it’s a sentiment held by many others in the industry.

This past February it was reported AMPAS was considering a rules change that would prohibit producers from submitting anything for any other award – including and especially an Emmy – if it had already been submitted for Oscar consideration. It wants to force people to choose not only which lane they want to be in but, because of the exhibition standard that must be met, what kind of car they want to drive as well. It’s hard to not think the floating of this idea was tied directly to the nomination of the documentary Icarus, which went on to become Netflix’s first Oscar winner.

That thinking, the insistence that distribution and not format defines a medium, overlooks or discounts the massive changes happening in the exhibition industry.

First, there’s the fact that theaters have been completely made over because studios are increasingly reliant on blockbusters, most of which are franchise starters or sequels and based on existing properties. That’s pushed many smaller movies out, meaning they will only get limited runs on a small number of screens at best should a studio buy them.

Netflix has, along with Amazon Studios, been the biggest buyer and distributor of these mid-tier films in recent years because they’re unencumbered by the expensive logistics that make theatrical distribution such an iffy proposition. The failure of many recent smaller, original films to find a theatrical audience only reinforces the notion that it’s not a realistic option in many cases.

Second, the Oscars have a history of tragically overlooking super hero and other genre material. In 2009 the Best Picture category opened up from five to 10 potential contenders in large part to address the disconnect between what critics and other voters felt were the “best” movies and what audiences had made popular with their moviegoing dollars.

And yet the Best Picture nominees since then still look a lot like they did before. Oh sure, in 2009 there was a nomination for Avatar and in 2015 the extra slots allowed The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road to be included. None of those won, though, and everything else is still whatever that year’s variation on the Nolan/Spielberg/British WWII History/Serious Character Drama mix is.

Meanwhile we continue to wonder whether this year will be the first year a comic book movie is nominated. The Academy’s decision to offer 10 slots was seen as a response to the failure of 2008’s The Dark Knight to secure a slot despite it being a massive hit with critics and fans. Same for Captain America: The Winter Soldier in 2014. And for Wonder Woman in 2017. But hey, maybe it will happen for Black Panther?

Third, those movie series that are dominating theater screens have more in common from a storytelling point of view with television than with movies as they’re traditionally defined. The Marvel Cinematic Universe films are serialized storytelling more akin to “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” than Casablanca.

So, in short, the message is that despite theatrical distribution being a non-starter in terms of connecting with an audience, it’s necessary if you want to win an Oscar. The kind of movies that *are* being released theatrically, though, are exactly the kind The Academy has overlooked and dismissed for a decade now.

Something is going to have to give.

AMPAS will have to either realize that format – the telling of a single story in a single work – matters more than what size screen the story was first viewed on or make peace with the fact that the majority of qualifying works are filled with Spandex-clad comic book characters or giant blue aliens.

ATAS understands, based on its openness to consider streaming series, that it is in the business of recognizing excellence in programming that adheres to a format, namely 20-70 minute sequential episodes collected under a “season” or “series” banner. Whether that content is delivered via cable, rabbit ear antennas or 4G wireless and regardless of device used to view it, it doesn’t matter. There are still rules, just not around those areas. It’s positioned itself to not only be platform agnostic but also to remain at the forefront of the cultural zeitgeist, able to capitalize on people’s enjoyment of everything from “Saturday Night Live” to “Ozark.”

For all the talk and debate around why more serious filmmakers and writers are gravitating toward TV instead of movies, it’s the former’s ability to adjust how it rewards success and remain relevant in the minds of the audience is certainly a point in TV’s favor.

Written by Chris Thilk

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist with over 15 years of experience in online strategy and content marketing. He lives in the Chicago suburbs.

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