With film awards season kicking into gear, there’s been a curious existential question revolving around ESPN’s O.J. Simpson: Made in America: Is it a theatrical documentary?

This may sound absurdly obscure and inconsequential (and you may be right!) but for the makers of film and the journalists and critics who write about them, a film’s categorization is sometimes a necessary hill to climb.

Writer Mark Harris has taken to Twitter with his opinion:

This issue tends to only surface when it’s award season, but there are other implications for the evolution of the documentary form.

First, I should note that the nuts and bolts issue of qualifying to be considered a theatrical feature documentary for awards purposes isn’t of interest to me: producers and networks can always figure out ways to shove a film in a theater for the requisite time so that their film can be deemed a theatrical release. Then the New York Times has to review it so that it can be considered for an Oscar, but this doesn’t speak to the deeper issue of what makes a doc a theatrical doc.

What interests me, specifically, is whether you and I should think of O.J. as TV documentary, a theatrical documentary or something else or if categorizing it is a meaningless endeavor in the first place.

To start, the film’s director, Ezra Edelman, says that he thinks it is a theatrical documentary. That from its inception, he conceived it as one film.

Fair enough. But authorial intent has never been the determining factor. That rests more in the hands of the audience.

Ultimately, for me, calling a documentary a theatrical one comes down to whether it shares a significant number of similar properties to that of a fictional feature film. Those properties could include story telling, character development, cinematography, editing/structure, length, production value, scope, themes, the actual place where most people watch the documentary and a number of others.

When I add those up, O.J. feels like a TV documentary. Yes, the biggest factors are that O.J. lasts more than 7 and a half hours and it has primarily been watched in five episodic installments.

That’s not to say I don’t think O.J. isn’t brilliant. It is. But when the Oscar list is pared down from 15 to five at the end of January, if it’s on the list of nominees, it will look like an apple amongst oranges. If it doesn’t, then it will probably be because the voters considered it a TV film. It’s in an impossible position.

I’m not particularly proud of my take on this. In a world where films are being made in 6-second intervals and people watch features in Snapchat snippets and on 4-inch screens, clinging to traditional notions like an approximately 90-minute feature length surely rings as fuddy-duddy reasoning.

Most of my thinking on this spurs from when, in November, my fellow BFCA critics chose to award O.J. the best theatrical documentary award while 13TH won the Best Documentary award in the streaming/TV category. Although 13TH was made by and for Netflix, the distinctions felt pretty arbitrary to me.

There’s no clear answer here. And this is all to O.J.‘s credit. The documentary is so good that it transcends the TV medium. We are used to great quality being projected on to the big screen. But in the same way The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Westworld et al. have raised TV-watching to or above feature-film viewing, docs are undergoing a change.

The Oscars have traditionally been all about celebrating cinema — far from the small screen. But the case of O.J. casts this divide in hazy doubt.

I hope to see O.J. get the Oscar nomination just so that we can continue to mull this over. If it doesn’t, then it’ll be in good company. 1985’s Shoah clocked in at almost 9 hours. It is considered to be one of the greatest documentaries of all time and it wasn’t nominated for an Oscar.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen