Short Rounds: The Oscars Definitely Matter, but Are We Happy About It?

Short Rounds: The Oscars Definitely Matter, but Are We Happy About It?

Feb 29, 2012

Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I wasn’t exactly pleased by this year’s Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film. It’s not worth going into detail; you can read my mildly irritated thoughts about winner The Shore in last week’s Short Rounds, alongside my effusive praise of the robbed Tuba Atlantic. Yet beyond my specific bitterness over Terry George’s weak and overlong Academy Award winner, I’ve been brooding a bit over a larger question. What exactly do the Oscars have to do with short film anyway?

I blame Christopher Campbell’s excellent Doc Talk column. Last Wednesday he asked whether or not the Oscars still matter for documentaries, and it got me thinking. What about shorts? There are some pretty strong similarities. The nominees in both doc and shorts categories are rarely truly representative of the best work of the year, the result of complex and arbitrary nomination procedures. Yet the relationship between the Academy and the documentary form is a little different. Many documentaries can now build success from theatrical audiences, and given the advent of streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu there’s much greater potential for home video discovery. In contrast, very few short nominees (excepting Pixar) are seen either in theaters or at home. The Academy Awards are, on some level, the biggest mainstream reminder that short film even exists.

Thanks to Shorts International, audiences in many cities can now go see the nominated shorts on the big screen or buy them on iTunes. This is a big deal, and it has done a lot to make more people excited to see short films. I just wish the nominees themselves were on the whole a bit more representative of the excellent work short filmmakers do every year. Maybe it’s the timing, but this became even clearer to me when I read David Ehrlich’s hilarious Film School Diary. His short, albeit a student film with unfinished sound, is miles ahead of this year’s Live Action Oscar winner in both cinematic ambition and narrative inspiration. And I don’t just say that out of Movies.com loyalty. It proves my point that there are countless little films out there that the Academy could choose to elevate.

This is not to say that magnificent work never makes it to the big show. A number of this year’s nominees were some of my favorite shorts of the year, including Tuba Atlantic and the beautiful Canadian Western Wild Life. Past winners have included films that should be included on any list of the best short films of the entire past decade, like Andrea Arnold’s Wasp or Martin McDonagh’s Six Shooter. Every year I go to see the whole crop of Oscar shorts, and every year I fall in love with a few of them. But in contrast with the typical list of nominees on the whole, it seems miraculous that truly inspired work ever gets through.

Wasp, by Andrea Arnold

There are three ways to qualify for Best Live Action and Best Animated Short. The first, a theatrical run in Los Angeles, is effectively irrelevant. The second option is through the Student Academy Awards, held every summer. Any 1st place (Gold) award-winner automatically qualifies, though why not Silver and Bronze? Tuba Atlantic and last year’s winning God of Love got nominated this way.

Finally, there’s the festival circuit. The Academy keeps a list of film festival awards that grant eligibility to a film. It’s long, arbitrary, and apparently subject to change without notice. Yet even from this small and perhaps random assortment of potential nominees there are always truly inspired films dedicated to pushing the art forward that get left behind in favor of narrative boilerplate. Here are two winners from last year’s Annecy Film Festival, abstract experiments in technique that blew away their French audience back in June:

Pixels, by Patrick Jean

Big Bang Big Boom, by BLU

It’s somewhat impossible to tell why some festivals make the list and others do not. Tropfest is the largest short film festival in the world and it has nothing to do with Oscar qualification. A film like last year’s winning Animal Beatbox might move on from its debut to other, Academy-approved but smaller, film festivals yet not walk away with the big prize. Granted, such an oddball film might not be up the Academy’s alley anyway. The Australian fest’s 2008 victor, featured in a recent Short Starts, would be a much better fit for the Live Action Short award. Marry Me is about cute kids, very crisply made, and has just the right amount of heart. Yet eligibility is simply too high a hurdle.

Animal Beatbox, by Damon Gameau

And then there’s the internet. Let’s take a second and go back to David’s film school short. Because Movies.com hosted it on the web, it is now barred from eligibility. It makes sense to disqualify any feature film that appeared online before playing in a theater, but that line is getting blurry with shorts. What if it takes good press from the Vimeo Festival to get a stellar but perhaps overlooked film into a more traditional event? More importantly, those few short films that become popular at all now do so entirely online. However many people buy Tuba Atlantic on iTunes, it will be fewer than the almost 950,000 views that Nash Edgerton’s Spider now has on YouTube.

Spider, by Nash Edgerton

Is there a solution? I’m not sure, and I’m not going to be presumptuous and spell out a specific plan for the Academy. I’m also not holding my breath for the boundaries between media to suddenly crack open, giving a statue to the groundbreaking and interactive National Film Board of Canada film Welcome to Pine Point. But there are definitely changes that can be made. The festival structure should be re-evaluated, for one. At the very least, they should fix the system before a Movies.com writer has a shot at a nomination.

In the meantime, watch the mostly un-nominated and entirely top-notch shorts I’ve embedded throughout this post. Here’s a link to Welcome to Pine Point, a film in which you can actually get lost.

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