Qualifying for the Oscars can affect distribution plans for films

If the distinctions between film and television seem to be breaking down with creators and audiences alike, one place that still holds to a strict definition between the two is the Oscars. As the official rules and eligibility guide states, the Academy Awards are “to honor outstanding artistic and scientific achievements in theatrically released feature-length motion pictures.”

Yet even that definition can become tricky in this world of releases with same-day theatrical and video-on-demand and the instant accessibility of streaming services. “Feature length” is defined as only 40 minutes, which is shorter than many episodic dramas. The film must play for seven consecutive days in Los Angeles County and be “advertised and exploited … in a manner normal and customary to theatrical feature distribution practices.” There are also some technical specifications for image and sound regarding how a movie is to be shown, so you can’t just plug your smartphone into a digital projector. (Not yet anyway.)

A release to a VOD or streaming service simultaneous to a theatrical release is allowed, but it can’t be released earlier on a non-theatrical outlet. That’s why you still see low-key theatrical releases meant to satisfy the eligibility requirements before something is released to VOD ahead of a more widely advertised theatrical engagement, as with the recent film “High-Rise.”

The eligibility rules for feature documentary are arguably the trickiest. A documentary feature must be released in L.A. County or the borough of Manhattan in New York City and play at least four times a day within a certain window of showtimes on those days. (This is to prevent someone potentially renting a theater to play to empty houses early in the morning or the middle of the night.) And a feature documentary must also get a review from a movie critic — “a television critic review will not be accepted,” read the rules — in either the L.A. or N.Y. Times.

The five-part, 7 ½-hour ESPN documentary “O.J.: Made In America” is getting a theatrical release ahead of its first broadcast, screening in three parts, that was approved by the academy’s documentary branch as satisfying the requirements to qualify.


Yet for all the specificity of their eligibility requirements, the documentary branch has so far been the most open to recognizing less-traditional releases. Last year Netflix received Oscar nominations for two documentaries, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” and “Winter On Fire,” that were both released to theaters and on the streaming platform at the same time. Yet Netflix got no nominations for its first foray into narrative feature releasing, Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation.”

Amazon Studios is now jumping into feature releases in a big way and has so far treated its movies to more traditional releases, going to theaters first and then VOD and streaming after some window of time. The recent theatrical opening of Whit Stillman’s “Love and Friendship” was a success in limited-release, and Amazon has new films from the likes of Woody Allen, Jim Jarmusch, Park Chan-wook and Nicolas Winding Refn coming later in the year. Whether any of those gain favor with the academy will remain to be seen.

Many viewers presumably aren’t troubling themselves over such semantic arguments between TV and film as long as they enjoy what they are watching regardless of format or screen size. And so for now it will be the Oscars, long a bastion of tradition, that will as much as anyone continue to uphold the most elemental distinctions between the two.

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