Emmy nominations were announced yesterday, and there's been a flurry of media coverage surrounding all the nods for new shows like "Glee" and "Modern Family," and lots of grumbling about snubs and omissions. It should be an interesting race this year, with so many new faces, but one category with no new faces drew my attention, one I can guarantee that nobody's talking about: Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie. This year's five nominees are a formidable roster: Maggie Smith ("Capturing Mary"), Joan Allen ("Georgia O'Keeffe"), Judi Dench ("Return to Cranford"), Hope Davis ("The Special Relationship") and Claire Danes ("Temple Grandin"). I can't help wondering, if luck was on their side, whether these women might have been up for Oscars for these performances instead of Emmys.
Aside from "Return to Cranford," a PBS period miniseries, all the nominations are for movies made for television, though I'm willing to bet they weren't all conceived for television. Three are HBO productions, and the fourth, "Georgia O'Keeffe," is a Lifetime biopic. Television films are the ugly stepchildren of cinema, long associated with low budget, low quality "movie of the week" dramatizations of salacious items ripped from the headlines. Growing up, I knew a TV actor's career was in trouble if he started showing up in too many TV movies. Nowadays they're mostly gone from network television, aside from the occasional prestige project like "A Raisin in the Sun," though cable channels like USA, Lifetime, and Sci-Fi keep churning out the old-fashioned, Z-grade kind.
But more and more often television films turn out to be projects that would have been theatrically released, except they weren't picked up for distribution or weren't able to secure the right financing or the right production deals. I've noticed several indie titles like "An American Crime," which starred Catherine Keener and Ellen Page, getting good notices at festivals, and then making their debuts on premium cable. Theaters seem to have less and less room for the mid-level dramas and biopics that were once common draws for older audiences, so HBO and Showtime and other higher end cable channels have picked up the slack. CBS Films launched earlier this year with "Extraordinary Measures," trying to carve out a niche for itself with theatrical releases of these smaller films, though its prospects don't look very good.
The critics have taken note that many recent TV films are at the same level of quality as anything found in the multiplexes. The same talent is involved, the same actors and directors. The nominated titles for the Outstanding Made for Television Movie category this year have casts full of major Hollywood names. A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips of "At the Movies" reviewed both "Temple Grandin" and "The Special Relationship" before their broadcast premieres. Unfortunately, due to labyrinthine rules regarding film exhibition, TV movies aren't considered for the same major industry awards, and have to settle for the Emmy categories that garner little interest from audiences. There's still a lingering stigma attached to TV films, no matter how acclaimed, and they tend to fade into obscurity much faster. Everyone remembers Steven Spielberg's "Duel" but no one ever remembers that it was a TV movie.
When it comes to yearly acting kudos, I think actresses have been impacted by these shifts much more than their male counterparts, since many of the plum roles for women come from the smaller, mid-level dramas that are getting squeezed out of theaters. Sandra Bullock had her best part in years with "The Blind Side" and won Oscar gold for it, but would she have gotten nearly as much attention if "The Blind Side" was an indie that didn't get picked up for distribution and ended up premiering on HBO? Or worse, went straight to video? It's often a matter of luck which films make it to theaters and which don't. Does anyone remember who won Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie last year? It was Jessica Lange for the TV film "Grey Gardens," a project that was in development as a theatrical feature before HBO Films stepped in to produce. It might have gotten a theatrical release anyway, like HBO's "American Splendor" and "Elephant," but for whatever reason it didn't. Should Lange and co-star Drew Barrymore have been up for the Oscar too? They got at least as many good notices for their performances as Bullock did.
Of course many of these films would have never seen the light of day or even been completed if it wasn't for television providing a ready means of distribution. Awards are one thing, but accessibility is even more vital. As more feature films aim for television and internet audiences over the multiplexes, categories are getting blurred and distinctions between one exhibition platform and another are getting more arbitrary. Eventually, I expect the industry will catch up and sort out the award show rules to match.
Or if the quality of the nominees keeps up, maybe the Made for Television Movies categories will finally get a little respect at the Emmys.