Doc Mega-Hits ‘The Last Dance,’ ‘Tiger King’ Lead Hunt For Emmy Nominations

Joe Exotic in 'Tiger King'

Coronavirus stay-at-home orders dramatically impacted television viewing habits, driving up consumption of just about every genre of programming, including documentary. The resulting huge audience numbers and media attention generated by Tiger King and The Last Dance could give those nonfiction series a leg-up as Emmy voters prepare to mark their nomination ballots.

Tiger King, the seven-part series on “murder, mayhem and madness” in the eccentric world of big cat breeders and private zoo operators, dropped on Netflix March 20, just as lockdown orders were being imposed across much of the U.S. Director Eric Goode is the first to say people moored in their homes, TV remote in hand, helped turn the series into a cultural phenomenon.

“I do think we all must assume that that’s part of it,” Goode states. “For sure.”

'The Last Dance'

Tiger King is contending for Emmy nominations in multiple categories, including Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series. It may be joined by The Last Dance, the 10-parter about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, which picked up the mega-hit mantle from Tiger King when it debuted on ESPN April 19. The network wisely moved up the docuseries’ release from a planned June premiere date to satisfy fans deprived of live sports action as a result of the pandemic.

“We pitched it [to Michael Jordan] as eight [episodes] and it grew to 10,” The Last Dance executive producer Mike Tollin says. “He realized we could delve deep into his character and tell the whole story. From a narrative standpoint, you have all these recurring themes, and serialized stories.”

ESPN’s two-part documentary LANCE, about disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, could break out of the peloton with multiple nominations. Both LANCE, directed by Marina Zenovich, and The Last Dance, directed by Jason Hehir, are part of ESPN’s acclaimed 30 for 30 series, which stands an excellent chance of earning another Emmy nomination this year for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series. Among the other candidates in that category is traditional powerhouse American Masters, the long-running PBS series that profiles leading cultural figures. It could be joined by fellow PBS series American Experience—winner of 30 Emmys across the decades—a show the network touts as “television’s most-watched history series”.

'Beastie Boys Story'
Apple TV+

A major Emmy development this year is the arrival of the new streaming platforms, Disney+, Apple TV+ and HBO Max, all of which would like to burnish their brands with nominations. Disney+ could factor in the Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series nominations with The Imagineering Story, from director Leslie Iwerks, a six-episode “journey behind the curtains of Walt Disney Imagineering, the little-known design and development center of The Walt Disney Company.” Apple TV+, meanwhile, enters the fray with two doc series—Visibility: Out on Television and Home—and two doc features, The Elephant Queen and Beastie Boys Story.

The nonfiction scene this Emmy season is notable for all the true crime content, documenting an array of misdeeds from murder to fraud. On the series side, along with Tiger King, the contenders include Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children and McMillion$ (HBO); Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, The Innocence Files, Don’t F**k with Cats and The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez (Netflix); and Murder in the Bayou (Showtime).

True crime features that could earn Emmy nominations for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special include two from HBO: Who Killed Garrett Phillips? and I Love You, Now Die. In the past, the Emmys have honored true crime docs—HBO’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst won two Emmys and Netflix’s Making a Murderer won four: best series, directing, editing and writing. Still, some documentary filmmakers think Emmy voters don’t give the true crime genre its due.

“It’s difficult for true crime stuff to get nominated,” asserts Erin Lee Carr, director of I Love You, Now Die. “I hope that that changes.”

A still from 'Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez'

Geno McDermott, director of Killer Inside, believes the disturbing nature of the subject matter can affect awards prospects. “There’s just an apparent darkness around true crime, so it’s hard to celebrate it,” McDermott says.

His series, about the New England Patriots star who was convicted of murder and later killed himself in prison, contains thematic elements beyond simply crime. He thinks that may improve its chances for nominations. “It was part sports doc, it was part pop culture, it was part true crime, then there was the sexuality angle [about Hernandez],” he notes. “So, I think it was very relatable and approachable to many people. I’m hoping this one can break through at the Emmys, as opposed to just a ‘regular’ true crime doc series.”

This is the last year films recognized by the Oscars will be allowed a second bite of the apple—going for television’s highest honor on top of the film industry’s big prize.

“The Television Academy ruled in March that effective in 2021, programs that have been nominated for an Oscar will no longer be eligible for the Emmys competition,” the TV Academy reaffirmed in a statement last month. Double-dipping has been a particular issue in the documentary categories—last year, for instance, Free Solo scored half a dozen Emmys just a few months after claiming the documentary Oscar.

'American Factory'

With the rule change not applying this year, expect American Factory—winner of the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature—to be called often when Emmy nominations are announced. The Netflix film directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert stands a strong chance of earning nods for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special, and in all the craft categories. The same could well prove true for fellow Oscar nominated docs The Edge of Democracy (Netflix) and The Cave (National Geographic). St. Louis Superman, an Oscar nominee in the short doc category, is being submitted for Emmy consideration after qualifying with a broadcast premiere on the MTV networks.

The Emmys also offer a shot at the spotlight for documentaries that fell short of Oscar nominations. Among those is Apollo 11 from CNN Films, which made the Oscar shortlist but not the final cut. National Geographic’s Sea of Shadows, about the effort to protect the last few remaining vaquita whales from extinction, didn’t make the Oscar shortlist last year, but now has a new chance at recognition with the Emmys.

“This wasn’t just a movie to educate the world and get an audience or something,” director Richard Ladkani says. “This was a movie so we could save a species.”

The Emmys give hope to docs that flew below the radar or did not have the money to launch an Oscar campaign. HBO’s The Sentence didn’t get shortlisted for the Oscars last year, but it wound up winning the Emmy for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking. This year, HBO’s Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements is being submitted for Exceptional Merit, a special juried category that’s perhaps the most prestigious honor for documentaries at the Emmys.

“It’s a peer-reviewed award, and I feel very honored to be considered for this,” director Irene Taylor says. “Yeah, I’m thrilled.”

Documentary filmmakers far and wide hope to share that thrill when the Emmy nominations are announced on July 28.

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