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Mitchell Block Direct: Short Films -- Oscar-Expectations

Awards
by Mitchell Block
February 28, 2013 1:00 PM
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Vol. I Issue 10 February 2013
Join us twice weekly. Send us links to your sizzle reels and film sites. 

credit: Matt Petit / ©A.M.P.A.S. February 21, 2012 at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. Pictured here prior to the screenings are the directors of the live action shorts (left to right): Oorlagh George "The Shore", Hallvar Witzo, "Tuba Atlantic", Stefan Gieran, "Raju", Gigi Causey, "Time Freak", Andrew Bowler, "Time Freak", Max Zahle, "Raju" and Eimeer O'Kane, "Pentecost."

As this last weekend approached I was faced with marking my Academy Award ballot. This process is always really difficult.  How does one sort out the “best” film or accomplishment of five or nine in the case of the Best Picture?   For me it has been over 30 years of screenings. Thousand of films.  Some really great films and many not so great.  I also try to think what it means to be one of the nominees. What was the off-screen story but always more importantly what their contribution was to the work and how the film compares to others. What’s great about short films is that they can be made for almost nothing by a few filmmakers without a large budget, crew or cast.  

The Academy has three nomination categories for films less than 41 minutes in length: short fiction, documentary and animation. Once nominated, there are public screenings and panels to celebrate the nominated films at the Academy in Beverly Hills.  A group photograph of all the nominees is taken with a large Oscar in the lobby of the Academy headquarters.  It is really a wonderful experience. 

It wasn’t always like that. There were no special celebrations for the short or documentary films until the l980s.  While the Foreign Language films had their seminar, nothing was done for these films.  We tried to remedy that in the 1980s and started the Direct Cinema receptions and screenings with UCLA, USC and, a few years later, the IDA sponsored “Docuday” and the Academy started doing an annual reception for the shorts and documentary filmmakers. Today the Academy’s evening receptions for the short films, animated features (a relatively new Oscar category) and the documentaries are annual sell-out events.  The filmmakers and their works are celebrated and it has become a highlight of the Oscar week for the filmmakers and those associated with the films. 

June Forey who has voiced hundreds of characters.
T Hee, one of the key Disney animators

When I first became a member of the Academy the short films and animation branch was headed by a number of extraordinary talents: T Hee, Saul Bass and June Forey.   These three remarkable artists represented classic Disney animation (T. Hee), fiction and narrative short films (Saul Bass), and the television and theatrical films (June Forey, who voiced hundreds of characters.)

Saul Bass articulated the branch’s membership policy, “We want them to be part of our branch.” This liberal interpretation allowed documentary filmmakers like Ken Burns as well as voice artists and creatives like Stan Friedberg (and June Forey) to be part of a group that included IMAX filmmakers as well as classic character animation directors, colorists, layout artists, producers and other key  short film and animation filmmakers. The animation filmmakers represent both the studio animators and the independent animators who work globally doing personal work as well as studio work. Other governors from 1979 to the present have included Hal Elias, who served on the Academy board for 37 years and was a short film publicist for MGM among other things; Bill Littlejohn, who worked on over 90 films as an animator ranging from Charley Brown, Peanuts Christmas Specials to working with the Hubleys’; Bill Scott, who acted and wrote over a hundred animated films, and Carl Bell, who worked on over 35 films at Disney in its animation department.

Saul Bass, designer and Academy Award winning filmmaker

Unlike most of the other branches, the Short Films branch screens all of the submitted films in 16mm and 35mm and now in Digital Cinema, in an effort to find and nominate the best short films produced in the world.  The branch rules allowed films to qualify in an effort to encourage more international entries in the 1990s by taking a first prize at key festivals in addition to the method that all Academy films can use to qualify, a theatrical week long  (now three day for shorts) run in a theater in Los Angeles County.  Branch screenings were expanded to New York to permit more members to participate in the nomination process in the 1990s. The final short listed screenings are in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Over one-third of the branch participates in the voting. The best change took place this year, sending DVD screeners to all Academy members of the short live action and animated nominated films. While this still won’t force members to watch them, members can’t claim they can’t see them. This is not only great for the branch but great for the nominated filmmakers. Who would not want to screen their short film for Academy members?

©A.M.P.A.S. February 20, 2007, at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. Pictured here from the live action category with Academy Governor of the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch, Jon Bloom (far left), are, left to right: Ari Sandel, director "West Bank Story"; Stuart Parkyn and Peter Templeman, producer and director, respectively, of "The Saviour"; Borja Cobeaga, director of "Eramos Pocos"; Kim Magnusson, executive producer of "Helmer & Son"; and Javier Fesser and Luis Manso, director and producer, respectively, of "Binta and the Great Idea."

The process of the branch for selecting Nominees has remained unchanged for years—members screen the films in a theater rather than on DVDs, which is how the Documentary branch is dealing with the flood of feature docs and their unwillingness to trust committees. Nothing beats seeing films projected on a large screen with perfect sound and that is now lost.  In a two step process, a committee (self selected from the branch membership) screens the films and the 15 films with the highest scores are short listed. The short listed films are then screened again and members vote.   

The current Short Film Branch governors are Jon Bloom (pictured with the 2007 nominees), a 1983 fiction short nominee, filmmaker, editor and producer who chairs the branch, animator and Disney Creative Head and multi-Oscar winner, John Lasseter, and William "Bill" Kroyer,an award-winning director of animation and computer graphics commercials, short films, movie titles and theatrical films and faculty member Chapman College. 

One of the challenges for the branch is how to grow live action producing members.  With the addition of feature animation to the awards and the large number of feature animation films being released, the branch would like to have the most qualified animators to become members. The number of animators grows at a far faster rate than that of the live action filmmakers since only a few live action filmmakers can qualify for membership.  The commercial success of animated features, the long production schedules and the large number of animators who work in qualifying positions allows for six plus individuals per picture to be eligible for membership. With five nominees a year, the number of individuals who can play a key role in two or three features becoming eligible for membership can easily approach 30 plus individuals annually.  Add in the short animation nominees and competition for the limited new slots allocated to the branch can be brutal.  The talent pool of animators is both astonishingly strong and suggests that Hollywood can easily double production from the 15 or so films made annually to 25 or 30 without having to compromise on talent.

Many of the filmmakers in the branch who make their Oscar nominated or winning live action short have made or are interested in making feature length works.  A number of recent nominees or winners have made that transition.   The following list looks at all of the live action nominees from 2001 to 2011, using the Internet Movie Database I looked up each nominee and listed what they reported they were doing professionally.  Obviously, this is not intended to show everything. In each case, I listed credits or summarized credits shown in the IMDB listing.

Some observations about 11 years of Live Action Short Film Academy Award Nominees:

  • There were 86 nominations (out of a possible 110) This is because in some years only three films were nominated and in some cases only one filmmaker from a film was eligible for a nomination.
  • Non-US based filmmakers dominate this category. Despite the huge number of short films being made annually in the US, a majority of the nominated films come from filmmakers based abroad. In part this is due to the government subsidies available, but it is also due to the strong training programs, commercial support for the short films and a rich tradition of theatrical shorts. This year (2012) four of the five films in the live action category are from US filmmakers. This is an unusual year.
  • Few filmmakers have more than one nomination, only a handful of the nominees have made multiple Academy worthy short films.
  • As one might expect, many of the filmmakers have continued their film work in television, some in features.  
  • The European Oscar winners (vs nominees) have done better at snagging features after a win than have their American counterparts. Again, this is likely a function of government support for entry features.
  • Perhaps one of the short films seem to have been turned into a feature (or television) film. Some of the short films are intended to be sizzle reels for features, but it is not clear why so few of the nominated short films have been turned into features.
  • A number of the Oscar winners have not continued working in film. No record of future productions are shown on IMDB. It would be interesting to see what they are doing now.
  • Two of the Oscar winners have written critically award winning screenplays, one received two Academy Award nominations for his screenwriting.
  • None of these nominees have gone on to win Oscars in directing or producing for feature films.

The data is from the Academy and the IMDB databases.

Apologies in advance, if credits were missed or other factual errors were made. In a week we’ll be able to add this year's winner. 

2001 (74th) 

SHORT FILM (Live Action)  (* won Academy Award)

2002 (75th) 

SHORT FILM (Live Action)

2003 (76th) 

SHORT FILM (Live Action)

2004 (77th) 

SHORT FILM (Live Action)

2005 (78th) 

SHORT FILM (Live Action)

2006 (79th) 

SHORT FILM (Live Action)

2007 (80th) 

SHORT FILM (Live Action)

2008 (81st) 

SHORT FILM (Live Action)

2009 (82nd) 

SHORT FILM (Live Action)

2010 (83rd) 

SHORT FILM (Live Action)

2011 (84th) 

SHORT FILM (Live Action)

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Credits: Editing by Jessica Just for SydneysBuzz
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Mitchell Block specializes in conceiving, producing, marketing & distributing independent features & consulting. He is an expert in placing both completed works into distribution & working with producers to make projects fundable. He conducts regular workshops in film producing in Los Angeles and most recently in Maine, Russia and in Myanmar (Burma).

Poster Girl, produced by Block was nominated for a Documentary Academy Award and selected by the IDA as the Best Doc Short 2011. It was also nominated for two Emmy Awards and aired on HBO. He is an executive producer of the Emmy Award-winning PBS series Carrier, a 10-hour series that he conceived & co-created. Block is a graduate of Tisch School and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business. He is a member of Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the Television Academy, a founding member of BAFTA-LA and has been teaching at USC School of Cinematic Arts since 1979. Currently Block teaches a required class in the USC Peter Stark Producing Program.

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