How The Academy Awards Screws Animation

So by now the winners have been announced and everyone’s done patting themselves on the back for another year. However, our coverage today has nothing to do with last night’s Academy Awards ceremony or even the winners and losers, rather it takes a look at how animation gets screwed by the Academy and those it has deals with. It isn’t pretty, but it’s the truth that will have to change before the technique is accepted with the respect that it deserves.

The Distributor

The first area where animation gets shafted is in the best shorts category. These impressive films usually receive (as part of their nomination) inclusion in a program that is offered to cinemas across the country around the time of the award’s ceremony. The traditional reason for this is natural enough; most cinemas won’t run the shorts individually so they are compiled and offered as a complete program that can be easily marketed and sold. That’s a fair enough deal and it offers the short’s creators the opportunity to get their films in front of the populace instead of just Academy voters and critics.

Such a fine proposition has existed for a number of years but this time around, something different occurred; all the shorts were made available online, and for free! The upshot was that many people took the opportunity to view the shorts. Paperman alone was viewed at least tens of thousands of times if not many more. The other shorts had similarly impressive numbers. Discussion was rampant online and off, as many fans and critics alike grasped the chance to see the films in a convenient manner.

All that changed on February 14th as a letter from Carter Pilcher of Shorts International was sent to the five respective nominees requesting that they remove the shorts from their official hosts. The letter itself is confusing as it initially states the obvious but falls back on that to ponder why the films were put online at all, since “Academy voters have other and better means of viewing the films.”

To cut through all the bullshit, what the entire fiasco amounts to is the Academy’s anointed distributor reacting to claims by its customers that their attendance is down because the shorts are available online. Business is business, but the people ultimately being sold for thirty pieces of silver are the animators themselves:

“Unlike Webbies or Ani’s, the Academy Award is designed to award excellence in the making of motion pictures that receive a cinematic release, not an online release,” Pilcher wrote. “This release of the films on the Internet threatens to destroy 8 years of audience growth and the notion that these film gems are indeed movies — no feature length film would consider a free online release as a marketing tool!”

No offence sir, but fuck you. Insinuating that animated shorts are even potentially below that of features is a smack in the face to those who create them. Shorts tell stories just as profound as features and attempting to justify their presence online as demeaning to them comes off as a rather desperate ploy.

Now all this isn’t to say that the cinema’s don’t have a legitimate claim, they very well might, but that is their problem for them to deal with. Trying to squeeze the distributor to get to the animators is a selfish act that is the cowards way of fixing things. People don’t go to cinemas just because they’re showing something, they go because it’s a social event and happens to have a 30-foot screen and other unique things that people don’t have in their own home. If you can’t offer something to compete with the shorts being on the internet, perhaps you need to look at what you’re doing wrong instead of trying to pin the blame on someone else.

The ultimate result of the shorts disappearing from the internet is that plenty of people who would have seen the shorts now cannot (we’re talking those living in the middle of nowhere and foreign countries, etc.) This castration of audience size stuffs animated shorts back into the realm of obscurity, and for what? So cinemas, the distributor and the Academy can put a few more pennies in their pockets while animators and their films get walked over at the one time of the year when they can benefit from all the publicity.

The Voting (and Voters)

As if animated films weren’t already getting screwed in some way by this years awards, along comes The Hollywood Reporter with an article that looks at how one voter casts his ballot as well as his thoughts as he does so. Under the title of An Oscar Voter’s Brutally Honest Ballot, we get an inside look at what happens when votes are cast. Most of the article is interesting enough, but as you would expect, the animated categories are where things start to heat up.

Take for starters the animated short category:

BEST SHORT (ANIMATED)

[Had not seen any of the films, but had heard good things about Paperman so he voted for it.]

Vote: Paperman

And that, is pretty much how a lot of other voters picked their choices as well. The audacity of it all is that this guy had not seen any of the short documentaries either but abstained from that category entirely as he had heard nothing about any of the nominees. Eh? Just because you heard good things about one of the nominated films, you decide to vote for that one? Not exactly fair now is it. This act immediately excludes all other contenders because Disney, as ever, is making a lot of noise about its films and ultimately has a good bit of clout to boot. Once again, animated shorts are screwed.

Now how about those animated features:

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

“It’s a tough category because everything is mediocre. I’m definitely not voting for The Pirates. I’m not voting for Frankenweenie. Brave was unimpressive. So I guess it’s between ParaNorman and Wreck-It Ralph. So… ” [At this time, he assigned the screen-side of his iPhone to the former and the back-side of it to the latter, and spun it on his desk.]

Vote: Wreck-It Ralph

Now fair enough, the animated feature field is a bit average this year, but that does not excuse such behaviour. Perhaps we can telepathically read his thoughts on each of the nominees:

  • The Pirates – “not a hometown production, didn’t gain from its nomination or will gain from a win. No vote”
  • Frankenweenie – “Tim Burton? Yuck! Ugly dog + the undead = shite. No vote”
  • Brave – “Just another princess movie the same as the others that I’ll never vote for, even if it is by Pixar. No vote”
  • ParaNorman and Wreck-It-Ralph – “Fuck it, I’m bored just talking about these films. Let’s just pick one and get on with it”

It’s tempting to think that the guy simply has no interest in animation, which may very well be the case, but the problem is that if he’s not taking the animated categories seriously, then who really is? Judging by the winners year after year, it pretty clear that most voters simply pick the one that is the best/most well known.

A few years ago, The Secret of Kells managed to sneak in and during the nominee announcements, we had George Clooney proclaim for all and sundry that nobody had even heard of it. While such a gesture was surely symptomatic of how Kells won the nomination in the first place, it nonetheless revealed the truth that even serious actors didn’t see the animated feature category as something that rewards the best rather than the most obvious.

This voter’s decision making isn’t the worst part though, for the article reveals that the best picture nomination is by preference. In other words, you pick a favourite, second favourite, etc. Anyone familiar with such preferential voting systems knows that they tend to benefit the smaller players, as they can gain from picking up second preferences once the lowest nominees get eliminated.

How does that screw animation? Well the best animated feature category is a straight vote. No preferences. The result is that films win based on totals rather than averages, so even though Brave may have been everyone’s first choice, ParaNorman may have ranked higher among voters overall.

This placement of animated features on a secondary voting system provides even more proof that the Academy views animated features as a category to appease certain players in the industry [coughDisneycough] rather than a serious attempt to convey any sort of cultural approval as they so often claim the awards are.

Conclusion

Both of these practices should prove beyond any doubt that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does not, and probably will not see animated as an equal. Their eponymous awards are sold as something that conveys honours on the best of the best, but they are really nothing of the sort. Why, as an animator (independent or otherwise) would you throw money and time at them in the hope of a payoff is beyond me. Until things improve, save your money and accommodate your fans; they’re the ones who feed you after all.

2 Comments on “How The Academy Awards Screws Animation

  1. A friend in the Academy said he voted for the Simpson’s short, MAGGIE’S DAY CARE because it was funny. I’m in the Academy and that’s good enough a reason for me NOT to vote for the TV show pretending to be an animation short. At least PAPERMAN (which I disliked) tried to do something with the medium. It was, in my eyes a failure, but it wasn’t just more of the TV same. To me this friend’s vote is worse than the “person who heard good things about Paperman”.

    • Thanks for the insight Michael!

      I agree, if someone doesn’t put any real thought into their vote, it devalues it entirely.

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