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Nat Geo wins first Oscar with Free Solo

Nat Geo has picked up its first Academy Award with rock climbing doc Free Solo.

The Fox-owned cable channel won the Best Documentary Feature prize at the 91st annual Academy Awards on Sunday (25 February), besting the likes of CNN Films’ Ruth Bader Ginsburg doc RBG and Hulu’s Minding The Gap, both of which were serious contenders in the run-up to the ceremony.

The award marks a major coup for the channel’s Nat Geo Documentary Films banner, which has invested heavily in premium documentaries under boss Courteney Monroe’s “fewer, bigger, better” strategy. It comes just months ahead of the Disney-Fox merger, which will subsequently see Nat Geo and its stable of premium content figuring prominently on planned streaming service Disney+.

The channel came close to Oscar glory last year with Brett Morgen’s acclaimed feature doc Jane, on primatologist Jane Goodall, but the archive-heavy film only made it as far as the Oscar shortlist, never managing to earn a nomination.

Prior to Jane, Nat Geo was last at the Oscars in 2011 with Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s Restrepo, which was nominated but eventually lost out to Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs’ Inside Job.

Accepting the award on Sunday alongside the film’s 33-year-old subject Alex Honnold, Free Solo directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi thanked Nat Geo for “believing in us and hiring women and people of color, [because] they only help make films better”.

The doc – which has had an extensive theatrical run via distributor Dogwoof ahead of a 3 March international broadcast premiere on Nat Geo – finds free solo climber Honnold, who climbs without ropes or any sort of harness, looking to ascend the treacherous vertical climb of Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan.

Nat Geo shared the awards spotlight with Netflix, which in addition to wins for Alfonso Cuaron’s Netflix-backed feature film Roma, also picked up the Best Documentary Short prize for Period. End of Sentence.

Set in India, the 26-minute film directed by Rayka Zehtabchi centers on a group of Indian women in a rural village whose lives are changed forever when they learn to manufacture and market their own pads, preventing women in their community from missing school and work and contracting illnesses.

Netflix acquired the doc last month and launched it on the platform on 12 February.