When directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin began collaborating on a documentary series about the strange world of exotic animal breeders, they thought it might generate modest attention.
“We were certainly fascinated by it,” Chaiklin recalls. “But we sort of thought it was our own little story that maybe a few people would be interested in.”
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Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness wound up attracting not just a “few people”, but a stampede after it dropped on Netflix in March. And when the Emmy nominations were announced, Tiger King snared half a dozen of them, the most of any documentary.
Netflix earned a record 160 Emmy nominations in all, a tidy number coming in documentary categories, where it lapped the field: Traditional documentary powerhouse HBO scored eight nonfiction nominations, fewer than half of what Netflix collected.
Netflix Emmy contenders include American Factory, which earned three nominations coming off its Oscar win in February for Best Documentary Feature. That film, about a Chinese company’s fraught effort to run an auto glass operation on the site of an old GM factory in Ohio, inaugurated the relationship between Netflix and Higher Ground Productions, the production company founded by former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama.
Four more Emmy nominations accrued to Netflix with another film from Higher Ground—Becoming, which tells the story of Mrs. Obama, built around promotional appearances she made for her bestselling memoir, Becoming.
But Netflix faces stiff competition at the Emmys, especially from HBO, which has its own strong slate, including the documentary series McMillion$, recipient of five nominations.
Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series
This is easily the most competitive nonfiction category, featuring a handful of contenders that became notable cultural phenomena.
Tiger King premiered on Netflix just as the coronavirus pandemic was confining people to their homes—caged like the animals featured in the series. Captive viewers turned it into a huge hit, and engrossing characters like Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin didn’t hurt either.
“The animal world is a very fertile landscape of interesting people,” Goode tells Deadline. “For whatever reason, the Tiger King series connected with the right audience. It obviously went viral in many ways.”
Tiger King is up against a series not about big cats but the GOAT—Michael Jordan. The Last Dance, which chronicled the final championship season of Jordan and his Chicago Bulls, debuted on ESPN in April, benefiting from an audience starved of sports. It averaged more than five million viewers per episode on ESPN, then aired on ABC, and is now among the most-watched programs on Netflix, which co-produced the series.
Director Jason Hehir says it was a small team that crafted the series, smaller even than the typical NBA squad of 15.
“It would be really gratifying for us to be recognized and to be put in the same sentence as other great documentaries,” Hehir allows. “But win or lose, it’s not going to affect the pride that I have in them because it’s impossible for me to be prouder than I am.”
McMillion$ hit HBO in early February, just before the pandemic lockdown, but the series still became water cooler talk (back when people worked out of offices). It’s the complex true crime tale of how a group of scammers pulled off one of the great frauds in history, rigging McDonald’s Monopoly game promotion over a period of years.
Rounding out the category are Hulu’s series Hillary, about former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and the PBS series American Masters which has been nominated for Outstanding Nonfiction Series an astonishing 15 years in a row.
Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special
HBO and Netflix also square off in this high-profile category, which honors documentary films (as opposed to series).
HBO’s draw is The Apollo, from Oscar-winning director Roger Ross Williams. His documentary weaves together the past and present of the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, a venue that has showcased and nurtured African-American talent since the 1930s, ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to James Brown and Lauryn Hill.
“It’s not a film about a building. This is a film about a community, the resilience,” Williams insists. “This film is, for me, really about the resilience of Black people in America.”
The Apollo goes up against not one but two Netflix documentaries—the aforementioned Becoming, directed by Nadia Hallgren, and The Great Hack, directed by Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim. The Great Hack investigates how Cambridge Analytica, the now-defunct data analysis firm, leveraged Facebook user information to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. It offers a harsh indictment of Facebook, which the directors see as undermining democracy.
“Facebook’s business model is incentivizing divisiveness,” Amer asserts, calling the social media platform a “crime scene that is polluting our information highway and stifling democratic civil discourse.”
Joining those films is Beastie Boys Story, which accounted for five of the 18 Emmy nominations nabbed by new streaming service Apple TV+. The film about the legendary rap group was directed by Spike Jonze, whose association with the group goes back more than 25 years.
Another music-related film contends in this category—Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time, a two-part documentary for Epix that celebrates the recording artists who turned L.A.’s Laurel Canyon neighborhood into a musical hotbed beginning in the mid-1960s.
Laurel Canyon scored three nominations, including two for sound editing and mixing.
“Awards are great and fun and exciting, but I don’t do things for awards,” comments Laurel Canyon director Allison Ellwood. “If it happens, that’ll be great. And if it doesn’t, I still love the film and that’s the best thing.”
Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking
This is a special juried award recognizing documentaries that demonstrate “profound social impact, significant innovation of form, [and/or] remarkable mastery of filmmaking technique.” Hopefuls are required to submit a written statement explaining why their film ought to be considered for this rare honor.
Only four films were deemed worthy of nominations this year, among them Oscar nominee The Cave, directed by Feras Fayyad. It’s the story of Dr. Amani Ballour and her colleagues, who tended to civilians wounded in Syria’s civil war, working out of an underground hospital in Eastern Ghouta.
The unpredictability of war meant producers Kirstine Barfod and Sigrid Dyekjær couldn’t foretell what direction the film might ultimately take.
“We didn’t know if Dr. Amani was going to survive,” Dyekjær tells Deadline. “And we didn’t know what was going to happen with our characters or our cinematographers, for that matter.”
Fellow Exceptional Merit contenders include Chasing the Moon, directed by Robert Stone, one of two films with Emmy nominations that track NASA’s historic mission to land humans on the lunar surface (the other is Apollo 11, which garnered five nominations).
Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements, directed by Irene Taylor, revolves around her son Jonas, whose limited hearing at birth progressed to total deafness when he was very young. He studied piano and became determined to master the Moonlight Sonata, written by Beethoven as the composer lost his hearing.
“I basically asked [Jonas] if I could just start documenting his effort to learn this piece,” Taylor tells Deadline. “At the beginning he was doing it by himself because his teacher wouldn’t teach him. She said it was too hard. But he just kept going.”
One Child Nation, from directors Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang, documents China’s one child policy, which was in effect from 1979 until 2015. The filmmakers expose the chilling reality of how Chinese authorities enforced the policy.
“If a pregnant woman gave birth to their first child, within a month they would be forced to have a sterilization. And if women resisted—let’s say if they tried to hide in a different city, in a different village—once they were discovered they would be taken to a clinic to have a forced abortion,” Wang reports. “If anybody violated the one child policy they faced detainment, prison time and substantial fines.”
Outstanding Hosted Nonfiction Special or Series
In some ways this is the most intriguing documentary category, because it’s such a hodgepodge. Among the contenders is Jerry Seinfeld, host of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, and Jeff Goldblum for his globetrotting series The World According to Jeff Goldblum.
“I follow my own actual curiosity,” Goldblum says of the show’s wide-ranging explorations. “I know nothing—that’s the premise.”
Leah Remini is nominated for hosting Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, a subject about which she knows quite a bit, having grown up in the Church of Scientology before leaving it in 2013.
VICE, the Showtime series which has no credited host listed in the Emmy nominations, is represented in the category, as is Ugly Delicious, the Netflix foodie show which definitely does have a host—restaurateur David Chang.
The Creative Arts Emmys, where the documentary categories will be presented, are set for five nights, September 14 through 19. This year, because of the coronavirus, the ceremony is foregoing its usual trappings and instead, according to the Television Academy, will be an “innovative virtual event”.
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