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ESPN’s ‘O.J.: Made in America’ was nominated for a best documentary Oscar, and yes, that’s allowed

O.J. Simpson, center, appears at the Buffalo International Airport in 1980 with his son, Jason, left, and father Jimmy Lee in Buffalo, N.Y. A documentary about Simpson, "O.J.: Made in America," has been nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary despite its largely made-for-television status.

ESPN FILMS/AP

By EMILY YAHR | The Washington Post | Published: January 26, 2017

The five-part “O.J.: Made in America” documentary aired last summer on ABC and ESPN — and now it’s up for an Academy Award.

The critically acclaimed doc, an extraordinarily deep dive into the “trial of the century,” earned a best documentary Oscar nomination Jan. 24, alongside “13th,” “I Am Not Your Negro,” “Fire at Sea” and “Life Animated.” As a result, “O.J.” now has a chance to become the first television show to win an Academy Award, and has already been deemed a front-runner. How is that allowed?

The short answer is “O.J.” — whose five parts clock in at nearly eight hours long in total — is eligible for the Oscars, as it briefly aired in theaters last May before it premiered on television. However, it has inspired debate over how fair it is that a project that aired primarily for TV (and was created as part of ESPN’s “30 for 30? documentary franchise) gets to compete among more traditional films at Hollywood’s most prestigious award show.

As TV evolves, and the lines between television and film increasingly blur, it becomes a more complicated issue — and one that many people have tried to sort out. When “O.J.” won a prize at the New York Film Critics Circle awards, the organization defended itself, Entertainment Weekly reported.

“Voting briefly stopped when one member raised the issue that the documentary leading at that juncture, (director) Ezra Edelman’s ‘O.J.: Made in America,’ was more of a made-for-television event than a theatrical feature,” read a statement in the organization’s press release. “In recognizing this superb, panoramic film, we also acknowledge that much great documentary work is now seeded by television entities, among them ESPN (which financed the O.J. film), HBO, PBS, Amazon, and Netflix, and that the window between a theatrical and television run has closed significantly.”

In an interview with the New York Times, Edelman said when he was approached by “30 for 30? creator Connor Schell about helming the project, he immediately saw it as a movie. “I told Connor from the start that I wouldn’t make a miniseries,” Edelman said. “The only reason I took this on was the challenge of making an epic film.”

Schnell, meanwhile, was quite candid about the fact that the only reason the movie screened in New York and Los Angeles theaters was to aim for an Oscar nomination. As an increasing number of documentary film producers head to the lucrative land of television, get ready for this situation to occur again.

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