ESPN sends a message in film-vs-TV debate: It will qualify upcoming O.J. Simpson series for the Oscars

One of the biggest questions facing the documentary world is how to categorize the emergent form of the docu-series. Are projects like "Making of a Murderer" and "The Jinx" akin to the time-honored television mini-series, just in nonfiction form?

Or are they more of a classic‎ documentary, just really, really long?

ESPN thinks it has the answer. Or at least an answer. When it comes to "O.J.: Made in America," its new five-part, 7.5-hour documentary series, the network is treating the material like a traditional film.

The biggest piece of evidence? The Times has learned that the network is qualifying the series for a documentary Oscar by opening it for a week in Los Angeles and New York theaters ahead of its airing on the network in June.

"Made in America," you may recall, is director Ezra Edelman's epic look at race relations in Los Angeles and around the country, only through the prism of the Simpson affair (and a journalistic world apart, it should be noted, from the current FX dramatization).

The series premiered at Sundance, at which time we wrote that it took a deeper, grander look at a subject many of us thought had been exhausted‎ long ago. (On Tuesday ESPN announced the series will air its first episode on ABC on June 11, then switch it to the cable network, with new episodes playing most nights between June 14 and June 18.)

The first three hours (two episodes in TV time) don't even deal with ‎the chase or the trial. They look at the rise of O.J. as a hero that white America‎ feels it can embrace, and a larger culture of racial tension that includes the Watts riots and Rodney King.

All of that sets the stage perfectly for the more familiar elements of the case, so that when they finally happen, we see them, ‎powerfully, against a much larger backdrop. And we come away feeling potentially differently -- or at least with more sociological and historical perspective -- about the trial and its outcome.

Because of that degree of ambition, ESPN believes the piece should be treated‎ like a film and thus be eligible for nonfiction's top Hollywood prize. So the network will qualify "O.J." for an Oscar, following the theatrical requirements in Los Angeles and New York, then hope the Motion Picture Academy and industry at large approve it accordingly.

 “This was not constructed as an episodic series — it was constructed as a film that just happens to lay out the story over a longer period of time,"  Connor Schell, senior vice president and executive producer of ESPN Films and original content, said in an interview.  “Positioning it like this we hope will help people think of it that way."

This is happening despite the fact that an Oscar is not something other high-profile docuseries have pursued; neither "Jinx" nor "Murderer" was qualified.

And in some ways the on-demand, binge-watching culture that made those works phenomena run counter to the appointment-viewing, discrete experience of a theatrical showing.

But there's also something unique about watching a piece like "O.J." communally, as anyone who committed to the all-day affair at Sundance can attest. (Tribeca will hold a similar event at its film festival next month.)

And besides, if the definition of TV can change, merging in all sorts of ways with the definition of cinema, shouldn't awards bodies update their thinking too? Making this eligible for an Oscar sends a larger message -- the old definitions of who can produce films, and how long they should be, and even what we call them, are irrelevant. The best work is the best work, and should be eligible for the highest prizes.

(Incidentally, the ESPN move goes against the grain of what some of the biggies have been doing. HBO in recent years has been more hesitant about qualifying even its traditional documentaries, preferring to keep the focus on TV premieres. Netflix has generally resisted a theater-first play, though it has come around on the matter of Oscars,  qualifying both narrative ("Beasts of No Nation") and documentary ("What Happened, Miss Simone?" and "The Square") contenders in recent years.)

‎Qualifying "Made in America" isn't an easy undertaking. It's not simple to find theaters that have eight hours lying around every day for just a single showing. ‎(ESPN has already booked said theaters, but Schell did not reveal which ones. ) And the network had to work with the academy's documentary branch on reinterpreting a rule that actually mandates four showings per day -- short of expanding the space-time continuum, that wasn't going to work for a 7.5-hour piece.

Still to be faced: the review hurdle. To be eligible for a documentary Oscar, a piece needs to be reviewed either by the Los Angeles Times or New York Times. You wouldn't expect this to  be an issue for a major broadcasting event. But the academy requires that "the film must have a movie critic review in either the New York Times and/or Los Angeles Times--a television critic review will not be accepted." So the ending is yet to be written on that.

Then of course comes the whole separate question of getting branch members to watch the series once it is qualified. ESPN will likely be sending out screeners. But as this new form keeps taking off, the academy may have to contend with its realities in which hopefuls are seven and eight hours long. Will there be some kind of rule instituted, a la the Emmys, that says distributors must cherry-pick select episodes? (Right now that's outlawed.) Or as the docu-series grows in popularity, will attention spans be expected to grow with it?

"What I love about the nonfiction space right now is the notion that a documentary can be 15 minutes long or it can be 75 hours long, and it can still be great," Schell said. Basically, it's a new world for everyone, with new questions. And no one yet knows the answers.

What's especially unique about the "O.J." instance is how it strikes right at the heart of the Oscars So White debate that gripped the entertainment world this past award season.

The documentary realm has not suffered some of the problems as other categories -- Oscar nominees have included at least one movie with predominant black characters in each of the past five years.

But the O.J. series -- in a way, like "The Birth of a Nation" on the narrative side -- will throw down the gauntlet in a different way.  This is not just a story with black characters; it's a story about race and inclusion that goes right to the same issues as the Oscars So White debate itself. And it comes from Edelman, himself a symbol of that inclusion, born to a black mother and white father. An academy that has been reluctant to recognize stories about race will now have  one of the most weighty and ambitious pieces on the subject before it. So what's it going to do?

The academy has long been able to avoid long-form documentary work.  And it has, to many critics' eyes, chosen to avoid movies with African American subjects.

In one fell swoop ESPN will provide a path for change on each. Oscar voters will make the next move.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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