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ESPN’s ‘O.J.: Made in America’ earns Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature

Football star O.J. Simpson is featured in ESPN's

Football star O.J. Simpson is featured in ESPN's film "O.J.: Made in America"  Credit: ESPN Films / M. Osterreicher

“O.J.: Made in America,” ESPN Films’ epic about you-know-who, has received almost universal praise since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival 368 days ago — and deservedly so.

The latest accolade arrived early Tuesday when it was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary Feature category — no small achievement given the Oscars’ history of indifference to sports-related subject matter.

Still, some in the documentary film community wondered why it qualified, given that it was backed by a major (mostly) television-oriented company and seen mostly by people on that television network last June.

I was among a teeny fraction who saw it in a traditional theater — in Manhattan last May — in one, eight-hour sitting, part of an effort designed to qualify it for the Oscars, which requires theatrical showings.

But director Ezra Edelman’s work primarily was a five-part TV series, part of the venerable “30 for 30” series. Wasn’t it?

“My take on it is: We made a movie, and there was never any question about that,” said Connor Schell, ESPN Films’ senior vice president and a founder of the “30 for 30” franchise, along with Bill Simmons.

“We set out to make a documentary film. We knew it had to be a long documentary film. It became a lot longer, but it grew completely organically, Ezra continuing to find the story. So if you watch, it tells one coherent narrative that proves a thesis from start to finish. I know how he made it, so for me that was never a discussion.

“We then, after we showed it in theaters and did all the things we wanted to do as a film, have to program it [for TV], so then we had to go in there and divide it up to show his film in parts. But that was our decision, not Ezra’s.

“Ezra just made a film, and in fact when we talked about it we were very clear that even though we were making something long we weren’t making a multi-part series; we were making one story. We have always approached [“30 for 30” films] as the story should be as long as the story is supposed to be, and that led us to telling nine-minute stories, 19-minute stories, 95-minute stories and 473-minute stories.”

Schell noted that “30 for 30” content has been presented as shorts posted on ESPN’s web site, as traditional, one- or two-hour television shows and in longer documentaries suited for film festivals.

Beyond that, the lines between TV and everything else long since have blurred. Many important recent documentaries have been backed by companies primarily known as television entities.

What matters from a viewers’ perspective is the product itself, and there is no questioning its worth, especially how it puts in perspective the racial dynamics that underpinned the O.J. Simpson saga of 1994-95.

“Of course, it’s heartening to see anyone appreciate work when you know what was put into it,” Schell said. “Any story you tell, the whole point is you want people to engage with it and talk about it and think about it. And so the idea that literally we’re standing here in January of 2017 — we premiered this film at Sundance almost a year ago to the day — and a year later people are still writing about it and talking about it and telling other people to go see it because it’s important, that’s what you chase when you try and do this – that you can hit relevant themes that people want to engage with.”

Last spring, Edelman admitted he was less-than-thrilled when he learned FX was planning a scripted series covering some of the same events.

As it turned out, not only did “The People v. O.J. Simpson” beat Edelman’s film to the punch starting last February, it earned big ratings and positive reviews, and eventually won an Emmy for Best Limited Series.

At the time, Edelman put a hopeful spin on the overlapping projects, saying, “In the end, based on how much people are into it, there’s no doubt [the FX series] engaged an audience in a different way and prepped people to be interested in talking to us about our film and hopefully watching it. I feel like I have had to eat my words.”

It turned out his admittedly wishful thinking proved true.

“Clearly, in retrospect, that was really helpful to this film in re-engaging people with O.J.’s story,” Schell said. “And it helped that it was really well done and it existed in an entirely different lane than what we did.

“It was just serendipitous, because we didn’t know that it existed. It’s really, really good, and so people watched it and liked and appreciated it and got talking about it. And so to see the film Ezra made telling you the non-fiction version of that story in a much more contextual, complete way, those were entirely complementary pieces.

“When we first heard that that existed obviously that created a lot of angst, because you think you’re working on something completely original and different that’s going to surprise people in some way and then you hear that there’s another 10-hour thing that exists in the world.

“But that all said, I also knew how good what Ezra was doing was, so I do feel like I have been involved in this long enough now to understand that when something is that good people are going to notice it whether something else exists or not.”

As Edelman said last May, “I definitely underestimated our culture’s fascination with the topic.”


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