Rule Changes And A Theatrical Program Help Shorts Find A Bigger Audience

Although short films have been a part of the Oscars since 1931, the live-action, animation, and documentary shorts categories are getting more time in the spotlight than ever before. Voting on the winners in each category will be open to the entire Academy membership for the first time this year, and the Academy is sending DVDs of the nominees to every member—two changes that Jon Bloom, who chairs the short films and feature animation branch, says were important to the executive committee.

“It is, for us, a bit of an experiment,” Bloom explains. “Everything within the Academy about the awards is a work in progress from the standpoint that we’re all always trying to make things better.”

Nevertheless, it’s all about visibility when making voters and viewers take notice of these small yet powerful categories. And Bloom points to the theatrical and video-on-demand program, Oscar Nominated Short Films 2013, that DirecTV’s ShortsHD short-movie channel began offering to consumers eight years ago as helping elevate the profile of short films.

Adam and Dog is about the bond between people and canines.
Adam and Dog is about the bond between people and canines.

“The huge breakthrough was to think of the shorts as a collection, meaning being feature length and being available in a way that fits,” Bloom says of the program, which packages each category of film into a theatrical, iTunes, and VOD presentation. “By having the Academy’s seal of approval on a handful of shorts that are being touted as special, then having audiences respond to those, has been very gratifying for us.”

It has also been a relatively successful venture for ShortsHD, its distribution partner Magnolia Films, and the nominated filmmakers. Theatrical receipts have increased 800% since the program’s 2005 debut, and 2012’s package ranked in the top 50 grossing independent releases, earning $1.7 million nationwide.

“Last year, we made a 5% return on the release. We consider it marketing, rather than something we’re trying to make money on,” ShortsHD CEO Carter Pilcher says, adding that each nominated filmmaker receives a $5,000 flat-fee advance. “After we recover the costs of the release—we work very hard not to make them very expensive—we then do a 50/50 split on all the receipts.”

(The documentary shorts are part of the doc branch, and four of the five nominees are owned by HBO, so ShortsHD pays a fee for the right to include them in the release.)

A man gets a second chance at life through the help of an odd collector.
A man gets a second chance at life through the help of an odd collector.

Making short films more accessible has increased Oscar submissions in the categories, as well. “The numbers are not staggering when you look at a Sundance that’s getting something like 7,500 shorts submitted to them,” Bloom says. “But this year, we had 120 live-action and 55 animated shorts. For us, that was a record number in those two categories. It’s partly the digital explosion that’s making tools and opportunities more plentiful and more affordable.”

They’ve have also become an appealing alternative for international filmmakers looking for Academy validation, according to London-based Pilcher, who says this year’s rule changes are “one of the best things the Academy has done.”

“We’re teaching them slowly that the other route to an Oscar for a national film is short film,” Pilcher says, adding that live-action and animation shorts Oscars are generally won by foreign filmmakers. “Countries find it very difficult to compete except in the foreign-language film category, but it’s an enormous political gunfight to decide which film of theirs will be the one to go to the Oscars.”

Although the Oscars are watched less attentively east of France, anytime a local filmmaker gets a nomination, it’s cause for national celebration, says Pilcher, pointing to Belgian nominee Tom Van Avermaet, who directed the live-action Death of a Shadow. “They’re sending over TV crews. It has huge national interest suddenly. All of Belgium will be paying attention to this particular category,” Pilcher says.

A hair salon gives free beauty treatments to women undergoing chemotherapy in Mondays at Racine.
A hair salon gives free beauty treatments to women undergoing chemotherapy in Mondays at Racine.

Receiving a nomination means a lot to filmmakers around the world, but a win can be career-changing, particularly for those who are already toiling in the trenches of Hollywood. For example, Chris Wedge’s 1999 win for Bunny made the industry take notice of the animation house he founded, Blue Sky, which ultimately partnered with Fox on the Ice Age movies. And Brave director Mark Andrews was nominated for his animated short One Man Band in 2006, no doubt raising his profile in Pixar.

Whatever additional changes come to the categories, they will be about bringing attention to an artform that deserves to be seen. “In many ways, the shorts categories are the purest and most passionate of any of the Oscar categories because these are not big commercial projects. They’re labors of love,” Bloom explains. “We don’t think we’re pulling the train. We know that people are most interested in the features and in the glitzy stuff. But we’ve gained a tremendous amount of traction with the public in terms of excitement in the category, and not just from people who aspire to make a short and win an Oscar.”

Documentary

Inocente

Nominees: Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine

A 15-year-old homeless undocumented immigrant refuses to let her circumstances crush her dream of being an artist.

Kings Point

Nominees: Sari Gilman and Jedd Wider

Five seniors living in an American retirement resort grapple with themes of self-reliance, community, and aging.

Mondays at Racine

Nominees: Cynthia Wade and Robin Honan

On the third Monday of every month, two sisters open their hair salon to women undergoing chemotherapy for free beauty services and camaraderie.

Open Heart

Nominees: Kief Davidson and Cori Shepherd Stern

Eight Rwandan children take a long journey without their families to have heart-valve surgery to repair their rheumatic heart disease.

Redemption

Nominees: Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill

A portrait of people called canners who survive in New York City by collecting bottles and cans and redeem them for cash.

Animation

Adam and Dog

Nominee: Minkyu Lee

A story that explores the relationship between man and dog from the perspective of the canine who forms a bond with Adam in the Garden of Eden.

Fresh Guacamole

Nominee: Adam Pesapane (PES)

The avocado is a hand grenade and the lime is a golf ball in this stop-motion-animated two-minute demonstration on how to turn everyday objects into guacamole.

Head Over Heels

Nominees: Timothy Reckart and Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly

A married couple live separate but parallel lives: She lives on the ceiling and he lives on the floor. When the husband tries to rekindle the spark, neither spouse can agree on how to fix their relationship.

Maggie Simpson in The Longest Daycare

Nominee: David Silverman

When Maggie gets dropped off at a new daycare and gets paired with the average kids, she spends the day trying to save a vulnerable cocoon from a classmate that likes to smash butterflies.

Paperman

Nominee: John Kahrs

A chance meeting on the train platform leaves a lonely young man searching for the woman with whom he crossed paths.

Live Action

Asad

Nominees: Bryan Buckley and Mino Jarjoura

An all-Somali-refugee cast brings to life the story of a boy who must choose between the life of a pirate and earning an honest living as a fisherman.

Buzkashi Boys

Nominees: Sam French and Ariel Nasr

Set against the backdrop of Afghanistan’s brutal game of horse polo, Buzkashi, this coming-of-age story follows two best friends as they progress to manhood in a wartorn country.

Curfew

Nominee: Shawn Christensen

A man gets a call from his sister asking him to care for his 9-year-old niece.

Death of a Shadow

Nominees: Tom Van Avermaet and Ellen De Waele

A soldier who died in World War I finds that a strange collector has imprisoned his shadow but gives him a new chance at life.

Henry

Nominee: Yan England

A concert pianist’s life is thrown into disarray when the love of his life disappears.

Academy Makes Sweeping Rule Changes

Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This story first appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of AwardsLine.

The times—and rules—they are a-changin’ for this year’s Oscar race. Every year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences refines the rules in an effort to keep the campaigning fair and maintain the integrity of the industry’s highest honor. But this year will debut some of the most sweeping changes Oscar has seen in decades.

Academy members will be voting electronically for the first time, which will allow a tightened schedule for determining nominations and an earlier nominee announcement. In addition, both the song and documentary feature categories received their own tuneups. The aggressive moves are an effort to make the nominees matter even more.

The earlier schedule means the eagerly anticipated nomination announcement will happen two weeks earlier than usual, on Jan. 10. And the period in which nominating ballots will be available is smack dab in the heart of the holiday season, Dec. 17-Jan. 2. Although the actual process of casting a ballot will be easier for members with laptops or iPads, the real challenge is the truncated time period that members will now have to see all the movies, particularly those released in December.

In fact, on the very day the Academy announced this seismic change, Universal moved the release date of its big Oscar hopeful, Les Miserables, from Dec. 14 to Christmas Day, seemingly giving voters less time to see the film. However, the consultant I spoke with didn’t seem concerned.

“We will begin screening heavily at the end of November,” the consultant says. “There is such want-to-see on this movie within the Academy I don’t believe we will have any problem getting members in on time to consider it. But you have to remember that, first and foremost, the studio is most interested in picking the date that works in the best interest of the film’s boxoffice prospects. And Dec. 25, right in the heart of the holiday (season), seemed a perfect choice.”

Academy President Hawk Koch told me all the major guilds—PGA, DGA, WGA, and SAG—seem to have no problem getting their members to see the movies early and get their nominations out in early January. He points out there are an enormous number of Academy members who are also members of those guilds, and he doesn’t anticipate the earlier dates will be that big of a deal to overcome for most diligent members. Koch also points out that the new dates give more time for voters and audiences to see the actual nominees because the period between nominations and Oscars is now six weeks instead of four.

Beyond the new rules for balloting, the biggest individual change in any of the branches came from the documentary peer group, which has radical new rules governing how a doc qualifies and what it has to do to meet the new requirements. Spearheaded by Academy Governor Michael Moore, the changes would seem to favor more commercially viable and better-known docs (the kind he makes), and put the kibosh on glorified TV docs of the sort HBO specializes in. Instead of relying on four smaller committees of branch members to each view 12 or more docs and assign a score, the entire branch will now use a preferential voting system (the same used to choose best picture) in order to create a shortlist of 15 titles, and later five nominees. All Academy members who have seen all five nominees will choose the winner. In terms of qualifying, a doc must play seven days in a theater in Los Angeles and New York for at least two shows a day between noon and 10 p.m., be clearly advertised in three major newspapers in the area, and even more significantly, it must be reviewed by a legitimate critic in either the Los Angeles Times or New York Times. Previously, films could qualify by sneaking in unadvertised runs that were so stealth critics were never informed the film was playing. One reason some distributors used this method was so they could qualify the doc without upsetting any future distribution plans.

Already the new rules have had the effect of scaring off potential contenders this year. Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell was one of the biggest hits at the Venice, Telluride, and Toronto film festivals, and it was quickly snapped up by Roadside Attractions. It would seem natural to capitalize on the glowing reviews and positive audience reaction and qualify it for this year’s doc race, the deadline for which was Sept. 24. However, a top Roadside executive told me that with the new rules, a quick, higher-profile Oscar-qualifying run could take all the air out of a regular release, and it was just too risky a strategy for their new acquisition.

Polley will just have to wait until next year, but by then the rules might have completely changed again. Controversy crept into the process when members complained they had too many films to watch (80 were dumped on the committee in October alone, with only a month to see them all) after a record number of entries managed to qualify, some by finding clever ways around the rules. Moore vows to jettison all special rules and just let the doc filmmakers play like the rest of the Academy peer groups, letting the best somehow rise to the top. Or so he hopes.

There was another big change in the song category, although in terms of Oscar history, it really is a change going back to the way it used to be. Once again, five nominees will be chosen instead of the recent practice of a variable number of zero to five nominated songs, which depended on a complicated voting system. Last year, only two nominees were chosen and neither was performed on the Oscar show, leading to an outcry from many members of the music branch. The number of eligible songwriters has also been amended to include the possibility of a fourth tunesmith in “rare and extraordinary circumstances.”

There were some other minor housecleaning changes in several other categories. First, for foreign-language film—which actually is in need of a much bigger overhaul in the way eligible films are submitted and selected—movies can be shown at the Academy in 35mm or DCP, but are no longer required to be exhibited in those formats in their home countries. Second, the makeup category is now known as the makeup and hairstyling award, and during the nominations process all branch members who have seen the seven shortlisted titles will receive ballots to pick their top three finalists. And finally, the five visual-effects nominees will be chosen from 10 contenders selected by the Branch Executive Committee by secret ballot (previously it could be anywhere from seven to 10).