ASIFA-Hollywood’s president describes how voting changes brought fairness, and Disney, back into the fold.
This year marks the 40th Annie Awards ceremony, the annual gala celebrating everyone and everything animated, where black tuxes rub ankles with red Chuck Taylors and even Weird Al Yankovic always seems a tad overdressed. I’ll admit I’m biased in my support of this annual event if for no other reason than someone actually goes to the trouble and expense to organize a rather classy gathering celebrating the work of creative types whom, for the most part, are well known only to their parents and their local Apple store.
In this case, that someone is ASIFA-Hollywood and the head someone is chapter president Frank Gladstone. And while there are more suits and less green spiked coifs than in years past, the Annie Awards, in my book, always seem to find the right mix of reverence and sacrilege, not too salty, not too sweet. Sometimes, as in the case of Brad Bird’s infamous taped Winsor McCay acceptance speech, it’s brilliant. Sometimes, such as when a clearly bemused William Shatner tried to match wits with John Leguizamo, it’s oddly surreal.
I recently had a chance to talk to Frank about the Annies, changes in the voting that brought Disney and Pixar back to the proceedings and what’s in store this year and in the years to come.
Dan Sarto: Regardless of what may have been going on within the ranks at ASIFA-Hollywood, the Annie Awards were always warmly embraced within the industry. The show seems to grow and get better each year. To what do you attribute this success?
Frank Gladstone: A couple things. First thing, historically, it has grown organically. It just didn’t appear on the scene, arriving like a bolt from Zeus. It grew from a little celebration of people who were retiring or had been in the business for a lot of years, held at the Sportsman’s Lodge, to an awards ceremony, to an awards show. It’s not a flash in the pan. The second, is that the community realized that as the Annies grew, this was the really the only way the community was congratulating its peers. Telling peers they did good work. The Annies became a reminder that this was the time of the year when everybody would look at what had gone on the past year… and celebrate that. That’s why they take it seriously.
You may read things in the press about how great any one person or show might be. But generally, our community doesn’t pat itself on the back. All communities need to look around and say, “Who has done the good work? Who has made a difference?” This is our way of doing that for the animation community. I think people realized that as time went on. It wasn’t just about old timers. It was about what we do in any given year. It became important for those two reasons.
“The Annies are the most important and prestigious award show within the world of animation. From humble beginnings, so many years ago, an ‘Annie’ is now a much sought after award and coveted by those fortunate enough to have been honored. Bravo to the organizational team that works so hard each year to enhance our industry by putting together this event’"
- Max Howard, Producer
DS: There really isn’t anything else done like this.
FG: No, there isn’t. In those early days, it was a really small group, everybody knew everybody else. We gathered, had an informal lunch or dinner. Today, it has grown to be this important thing. Not only us, but the rest of the motion picture community now looks at us seriously too. , People outside our industry look at us as a serious event, not in a patronizing or condescending way, which may have been the case early on. It’s a serious award, it gets serious coverage.
DS: Since you’ve taken over as president, what would say have been the biggest changes you and the board have made with the Annies?
FG: We haven’t done very much yet. The changes have been mostly cosmetic so far. The first year we were simply learning how to do it. The board was always involved in judging and things like that, but we weren’t really involved in the actual ceremony very much. We supported it, we went to it, sometimes were involved as a presentation substitute because a star fell out at the last minute. Other than judging, we weren’t heavily involved. Now, we’re more involved. That’s the first thing. Many more of our board members are much more involved in the ceremony.
The format hasn’t changed very much. I think it will. Putting on the Awards is a hard job. However, as we get used to it, and we see how we can improve the format, or how it’s presented, we will make some changes. You’ll see a few changes this year. A new set, different music, some different personnel than we’ve used in the past. We’re streaming it now online. This will be our second year. We learned a lot last year. We won’t make some of the same mistakes this year. We’re hoping one of these days a TV network will pick us up. We get closer to that each year. We made a better presentation to the networks this year than in previous years. We’ll make an even better presentation next year. Those are the kind of things we’ve done.
"I love the Annies! It is a chance for the entire industry to dress up and get together -- you see everyone! Old friends, past co-workers, current collaborators, friends... It is just a great night for the animation community to come together and celebrate each year's achievements."
- Heather Kenyon, Citizen Skull Productions
I think you’ll see more changes in the next couple years. I’m hoping to reformat the awards a little bit, make it a more elegant, streamlined program. I don’t know how we’re going to do, but I think we’re going to do that. We’re trying to engender more membership participation. We certainly have changed the way the voting works. That was a big deal. We changed how the voting is done. We’ve also changed the election interface this year. The ballot is way easier to look at, way easier to navigate. You can go through it quickly, or slowly, whichever one you want. The voting itself is much more intuitive than in the past.
DS: Weren’t there also some changes in the categories? Isn’t there an audience vote now?
FG: We did this last year as an experiment. We did a member’s favorite for the features. It didn’t work. It didn’t work for a lot of reasons. It was very hard to do. We got some votes, but it was a relatively small number of votes. We offered it to the entire ASIFA community worldwide. It really didn’t play well. We also noticed it tended to diffuse the ceremony slightly. So, we’re not doing it this year. What we did do this year is something we think is going to be huge as years go by. We created a student Annie Award. It did quite well this year. We didn’t expect it to be quite as big as it has been. It has one of the largest number of submissions of all our awards. We think it will grow substantially. This is a chance to for students all over the world to take part. It’s been hugely successful in its first year.
DS: There has always been criticism as far as how the voting was done, the perception that the voting was a popularity contest that could be swayed by blocks of studio votes. What changes have you made to address this issue?
FG: The criticism has been that the voting could be gamed. That’s a criticism you find in almost all the awards ceremonies. Somehow, there’s a way to game it. You spend more money on ads, this and that, you influence the voting. In our case, the criticism was that a studio could manage to control the election. Historically that actually wasn’t true. But, be that as it may, the perception was that it could be done and in fact, it probably could have been if anybody really wanted to do it. So we had to come up with a way to change that perception.
What we did was take a lesson from some of the other awards ceremonies and from the Electoral College. First, we made it so voters had to be pro level members who had credits for work that contributed materially to the actual product. Not the sales of the product. Not the office infrastructure. They must be creatively and artistically involved in the product itself. An animator, a composer, a designer… a producer or a director. That’s the first thing we changed. In the old days, if you had $30, you could vote on the Annies. Right now, that’s not the case. This has been a long process and has taken a number of years to implement.
The other thing we did is after the popular vote, we will then have a group of noted individuals, with extensive credits, that looks at the top contenders and finalizes the vote. They look at the top three in each category and finalize the vote. So it’s possible, like in the Electoral College, for the top vote getter not to be the winner. What that does is not allow any studio to control the vote. This random selection of judges represents all the studios and is weighted absolutely fairly through the industry. There are individuals, studio people and representatives of each of the nomination committees, who all determine the actual winners. We have the popular vote, that establishes the highest vote getters, and then the Electoral College makes the final picks. That Electoral College does not allow any person or studio to try and game the system. Nobody even knows who the Electoral College participants are except the Electoral College. Each year the Electoral College changes. And it works. Last year it worked and I’m confident this year it will too.
DS: Can you tell me a little bit of the issue regarding Disney decision not to participate in the Annies. What caused the break and what did you do to fix the situation and bring them back?
FG: This started before I became president. I was on the board then, so I observed what happened. The issue, basically, was what we just discussed about potential gaming of the system. Disney felt they were under-represented and that the vote wasn’t fair. So, when I took over as ASIFA Hollywood president, I had two priorities. First, was to set some goals for ASIFA Hollywood in general. That was number one. There were several goals to set. One of those goals was to do what I could, and get members to do what they could, to get Disney back into the fold. That didn’t include going to Disney and saying, “Let me convince you.” That’s not what anybody was looking for. “Let me try and talk you into it.”
What I wanted to do was answer their issues. And the issues, quite frankly, were shared by other people besides Disney. So we made changes with the awards selection. I think Disney, Pixar and the whole group realized that these awards are important. I think they knew when they left that it wasn’t a good thing for the industry. And when they had the opportunity to come back, they felt comfortable that we were answering their concerns as well as the concerns of other studios. The board didn’t think, “What are the other studios going to say?” We asked ourselves, what would be the fairest thing we can do? I think Disney and everyone else recognized that. This decision about the voting wasn’t going to make everybody happy. But, it was the fairest way to do it. I think Disney and the other studios recognized that. I think, and I hope, that the independents recognized that as well.
It really is a fair and equitable way to handle things. It keeps things on the up and up. It has worked and nobody has gotten upset about it. If a major a studio doesn’t participate, it really isn’t a competition. Everybody knew that. I think everybody was eager to get past this. Everybody was looking for an answer. We worked really hard to figure out an answer that everyone could look at and say, “OK, that’s fair.”
Another thing that I did was open up our advisory board to representatives from every studio that wanted to be on it. Twice a year, there’s a very interesting lunch. We have heads from all the studios. They all sit down in the same room. And we talk about ASIFA. We are Switzerland. We are a neutral country. We’re not there for any other reason than to celebrate ourselves. At the end of the day, the Annies are to honor the community, the people who work in our industry. No other reason. We don’t have another agenda. So everybody feels comfortable sitting in that room. Until I ask for money.
FG: And that’s something I’m going to continue to do. You have to. No organization survives just on member dues. We have lots of big plans. We’re planning on having a curated archive. If all goes well and the creek doesn’t rise, we’re going to have a paid staff this year. I’m hoping, down the road, that we will have an Academy, both brick and mortar and virtual, that will minister to our members, which number several thousand. We’ll be able to do screenings, qualify films for the Oscars, hold events, celebrate our history, things like that. We have our educator’s forum, which is extremely important, which has done fantastic work this last year. We also have our fund for animators that are in trouble, which we are using. People get in trouble and we try to help.
DS: It will be great to see all these initiatives come to pass.
FG: It’s hard work for everyone. But, it’s really fun and very rewarding. We’re going in the right direction. It’s a bit slower than I’d wish, and it’s a bit harder than I might wish, but we’re getting there.
Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.