Monday, June 5, 2017

"OJ: Made in America" is a Movie and a TV Miniseries

According to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Ezra Edelman's 467 minute documentary "OJ: Made in America," qualifies as a movie, because it screened theatrically and made the rounds at film festivals last year before it was broadcast on television. However, others have vocally insisted that it should be considered a television miniseries. It was produced in part by ESPN for their "30 for 30" documentary series, and aired in five installments when it was broadcast over the summer. The clearly delineated chapter breaks also suggest that it was initially conceived to be episodic rather than a whole work meant to be watched in one sitting.

So is "OJ: Made in America" a movie or television? Should it be considered a film, eligible for Oscars or a television series eligible for Emmys? And why not both? With the only difference between the two these days really only coming down to the platform it premiered on, not to mention the added complications of web content often straddling worlds, the lines are getting blurrier every day. My position is that "OJ: Made in America" can be considered both a film and a television series based on how it's being presented. The biggest issue that most people have with calling it a movie, its massive length, does not bar the documentary from being considered a feature film. Though rare, there have been features that have run in excess of seven hours, including the landmark Holocaust documentary "Shoah," which runs about nine and a half hours.

I watched "Shoah" a few years ago over the course of a few days. "OJ: Made in America" only took me two sittings, because I didn't have to concentrate so much on the subtitles. However, I watched the ESPN presentation, which had been packaged as five episodes, instead of the full feature presentation. So I can't say whether "OJ: Made in America" works better in one form or the other. However, nothing I saw made it unsuitable for a feature format. Length seems to be the only reason it was broken up into parts for television, as it would be much less economically feasible for ESPN to run "OJ: Made in America" as a television movie. However, ESPN could easily marathon all the parts together the way that many cable channels do with their series and miniseries.

In short, the classification of "OJ: Made in America" doesn't depend on its content so much as the economic concerns of its distributors. Once it realized it had a potential prestige title on its hands, ESPN made the choice to treat "OJ: Made in America" as a movie, ensuring that it met all the qualifications for Oscar eligibility. However, when it came time to run the documentary on its own network, ESPN also decided to treat it as a television miniseries, so it would be more easily digestible for its viewers. Again, this is not a unique situation. The first two "Godfather" films were re-edited in 1977 to create the four-part miniseries "The Godfather Saga" for television. Ingmar Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander" and "Scenes from a Marriage," have feature and miniseries versions.

I expect to see this happening more often, since there's been such an explosion of content in recent years, and the existing platform-based categories are often constraining. I've seen animation producers do this sort of thing for years, editing together several episodes of a popular series to release it as a theatrical film, or cutting up a feature so it can run as part of a syndicated package of episodes. If you're going to binge-watch a whole season's worth of "Mr. Robot" episodes, why not try a feature version that cuts out all the filler? Or if you especially enjoyed a film series like "Harry Potter," wouldn't you be interested in a miniseries version with extra material? I'm certainly not going to begrudge any content producers for trying to get a little more bang for their buck.

The purists, frankly, are just being silly. "OJ: Made in America," whatever format it happens to be in, is a fantastic documentary. The distinctions between the movie and TV versions are almost totally arbitrary. And whatever version people see, what's really important is that they see it.

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