Not so long ago, the Academy Awards' three short film categories—made up of nominees few outside of the industry had even heard of, much less had a chance to see—were guaranteed to wreak havoc on your Oscar pool. But over the past 14 years, there has been a shift in the awareness and availability of short films, thanks in part to Shorts International, a company dedicated not only to screening the Oscar-nominated shorts in their celebrated theatrical programs, but also to bringing the best of short films into peoples' homes with the Shorts HD network.
Shorts International's theatrical runs have become increasingly popular. So when seeking answers about how a short film becomes Oscar-nominated, I turned to Shorts International founder, Carter Pilcher. A man of many talents, Pilcher worked as an engineer, lawyer, and investment banker before founding Shorts International in 2000. The strides his company has made in short film and the exhibition of the art form earned him a spot as an Academy member in 2009. Basically, he was the perfect person to answer my questions about a short's road to Oscar. Here's what I learned.
1. The Rules Of Qualification Are Determined By Academy Branches
There are up to 18 different branches in the Academy, "and each branch is responsible for the rules around the Oscar prizes that it manages, sets those rules, and presents its nominees in those categories to the rest of the Academy," Pilcher explains. "So for instance, the actors' branch decides what you have to do to qualify as an actor and what the rules are. And then they go through a process to submit their five nominees in their four categories. Then the whole Academy votes on everything." (The only category not chosen by one branch is Best Picture. Those nominations are culled from the top ten submissions from every Academy member.)
There are three short film categories: Live-Action, Animation and Documentary.
But these categories are actually determined by two different branches. One is made up of documentarians, who determine the nominations for Best Documentary Short as well as Best Documentary Feature. Pilcher is a member of the branch that determines the nominees for Best Live-Action Short, Best Animated Short, and Best Animated Feature. "The total branch size is probably 600 people," he tells me over coffee. "It's a fairly large branch within the Academy. The largest is the Acting Branch, and the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch is the second largest."
As to who makes up this branch, Pilcher explains, "It's people who have distinguished themselves in making short live-action films, short animated films, or feature animations. So it's a heavily animation-oriented branch."
2. First A Short Must Make The Long List Of Qualified Films
Per the rules set down by the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch, there are two methods that qualify a short film for the Academy's long list for potential nominees. The first is that a short (live-action or animation) must win a certified prize at an event the Academy recognizes as reputable enough to pick exemplary winners, like the Cannes Film Festival. "The second way you can get your short film qualified is by screening for three days in a movie theater in Los Angeles," Pilcher says. "Disney and Pixar, all their shorts get released in front of pictures. So those all qualify. And it also allows for someone to rent theater space and qualify their short. So some films go that route."
From these two methods a list is formed that boasts somewhere between 100 to 130 short films in each of the two categories. From here, these qualified films are screened for the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch. The screenings of the qualified animated shorts typically occur over a weekend, and take place in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. "You go nine or ten hours on Saturday, eight hours on Sunday," Pilcher says, "and everyone who goes turns in a ballot. Probably two or three hundred members of the branch come."
The live-action shorts have much heftier running times, and so only screen in Los Angeles. This past year, the screenings ran for four hours over Tuesday and Thursday for six weeks. Ballots are issued at each screening, but members must see at least 50 percent of these shorts to vote on which of these qualified films should earn a nomination. "It's a huge commitment," Pilcher says of this process, "and the fun thing in the American Academy is it's like being in a guild. And there's a very strong sense about your branch and about the importance of your branch of setting a standard globally for recognizing the very best film." From these sets of screenings, the shorts with the top ten scores in each category move on to the short list.
3. The Branch Picks From The Short List For Oscar Nominations
After the short list has been determined, Pilcher says, "we have another branch meeting, and everyone in the branch is invited. And not everybody comes, but I'd say more than half the people come. They do a screening in L.A., a screening in New York, and a screening in San Francisco. And we all sit in the theater for the day and watch the 10 animations in the morning, 10 live-actions in the afternoon 'til evening, almost dinnertime. Score all of them. And then the nominations are announced in January."
While people might chat and casually compare notes, there's no conference where the whole branch openly weighs their options. Instead, those members who attended this short-list series of screenings submit ballots, scoring each film from 6 to 10 points. The assumption is that no film that's made this list will be beneath a 6. However, films that get an average score of less than 7 are struck out of nomination running immediately. "So if everything scored below a seven, nothing would go forward," Pilcher says. Barring those shorts rated 7 or less, the top five animated and live-action shorts go on to get the official nominations.
4. Voter Turnout On Shorts Has Shifted Since 2012
Once the nominations are announced, every Academy member has the opportunity to vote on every Oscar category. If a member hasn't seen some of the nominated films, or feels ill equipped to weigh in on, say, Best Sound Mixing, they can choose to abstain from that category. The Academy operates on an honor system that assumes its members won't vote in a category they're incapable of for either of these reasons. Again, Pilcher emphasizes that this sense of being in a guild pushes Academy members not to take these decisions lightly. He explains, "there is a feeling amongst everyone that this is really important, what we're doing. We are setting the standards for our part of our industry, and that these prizes mean something to people's futures. It's all volunteer. Nobody gets paid anything or gets any special anything … it doesn't benefit them personally in any way."
In the past, the short film nominees were screened for Academy members in New York, Los Angeles, and London. These are the only places that ballots for these categories were distributed, while the rest of the Oscar ballot was sent to members. Typically, stacks of screeners are sent to Academy members to make seeing the nominated feature films as easy as possible. For the 2013 Academy Awards, the shorts categories followed suit, sending screeners of their nominees. The result was more of the Academy voting on these categories.
Pilcher is elated over this increased turnout of voters for his branch's categories. His feeling is that pulling from the broader base of members from all facets of filmmaking will only raise the standards of the category, and better reflect the Academy's goal of promoting the best in cinema. As to how this increase in other branches weighing in has impacted the category, he has observed that the strength of a story has become much more a defining feature of winners than it was before. For instance, last year Paperman beat out Head Over Heels, a short that Pilcher describes as "very, very interesting and charming." While its animation showed more compelling technique than Paperman's, its story wasn't as strong. And he's hearing more and more that's what's driving voters.
5. Short Animation: Oscar's Most Egalitarian Category
In award season, we often hear stories of independent films that just couldn't compete with the massive marketing campaigns waged by big studios. However, because of the possibility of entry through film festivals, the shorts categories are not afflicted by this issue. "Short animation is a place where studios with enormous budgets can compete against students," Pilcher says. "So we have a film this year called Feral that's done by one guy [Daniel Sousa] at RISD, the Rhode Island School of Design … he basically hand drew the entire seven-minute film! Hand drew by himself! And it's beautiful and interesting. And he's from a design background, so it's a bit provocative and certainly more open-ended. And that film is competing directly against Mickey Mouse [in Get a Horse] … And the Mickey Mouse is fabulous too. And it's great. There's nowhere else in the Academy [where that happens]."
The other area where shorts offer more opportunity is to international filmmakers. Again, the film festivals—several of which are international—offer a shot for films from all over the world to truly compete. The trouble in the features categories is that the Academy is not allowed to just pluck what members feel is the best film out of a given country. Instead, they have to accept a nation's submitted feature for consideration. Pilcher acknowledged this is often a political process that doesn't always offer a country's truly best work, but it's out of the Academy's hands. Yet in shorts, this barrier doesn’t exist.
"The docs are normally done in the English language, so they are usually American or British," Pilcher allows. But he points out three of the five animation noms are from abroad, as are all five of the live-action nominees, representing nations from France/Luxembourg (Mr. Hublot and Just Before Losing Everything), Japan (Possessions), the UK (Room on the Broom and The Voorman Problem), to Spain (That Wasn't Me), Denmark (Helium), and Finland (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?).
6. There's A Simple Recipe To The Shorts Theatrical Screenings
Pilcher recounted to me the uphill battle of getting Shorts International's theatrical program of Oscar-nominated shorts going. When they started, your average movie-goer didn't really understand what a short film was, as they'd fallen out of theatrical culture from roughly the 1960s to the latter half of the '90s. But word of mouth has been huge for the growth of these three programs (Animation, Live-Action and Documentary). Pilcher says people often tell him they come every year, or they came because they'd heard what a fantastic cinematic event these screenings are. Word of mouth is huge for the Oscar Nominated Shorts Programs. This year, they will play in 400 theaters across the US.
Pilcher and his company have been working diligently to make short films more accessible to movie-lovers, and a major part of this means releasing these programs on VOD and iTunes at the end of February. But with a VOD release following so fast after their January 31st debut, these programs seem too risky to movie theater chains that sneer at day-and-date releases. So Shorts International works with independent theaters.
To make their programs all the more fun, Pilcher and his team even bolsters the Animation program with a few bonus shorts. This year, this includes a wacky cartoon about some hoity-toity chickens in A la Francaise, the romantic Pixar short The Blue Umbrella, and a heady adventure called The Missing Scarf that features narration from the one and only George Takei. Asked what determines which non-Oscar-nominated shorts will make the cut, Pilcher said he and his team look over the short list, and clear their picks by the Academy, but overall they're looking for something fun that will play well to their audience.
The Oscar Nominated Short Films are now in theaters. You can find a full list of theaters here. They'll be available on Demand and on iTunes February 25th.