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Has the Oscar for Animated Feature Affected the Industry?

Rick DeMott takes a look at whether the Oscar for Animated Feature has changed the animation industry.

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Who will join Shrek and Spirited Away as the next Oscar winner? Shrek © DreamWorks. Spirited Away © 2002 Nibariki. TGNDDTM. All rights reserved.

In September 2000, the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced they had created a new category for Best Animated Feature to be given out in 2002. For decades, figures in the animation community, notably voice legend June Foray and veteran animator Bill Littlejohn, had pressured the Academy to recognize the work in feature animation. The category would go into effect when eight animated films were eligible in a given year. An animated feature was defined as any film at least 70 minutes long, featuring an animated character in more than 75% of the films running time.

At the tale end of 2001, animators held their breath awaiting the announcement that there were at least eight eligible films. With 11 films entered, the award would go ahead. The list of films vying for a nomination included, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, Marco Polo: Return to Xanadu, Monsters, Inc., Osmosis Jones, The Prince of Light, Shrek, The Trumpet of the Swan, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust and Waking Life. The nominations ultimately went to Neutron, Monsters and Shrek all CG films.

Controversy surrounded as national critics, industry insiders and armchair reviewers nitpicked the selections. Manga Entertainment questioned the Academys eligibility rules when its theatrically released anime film Blood: The Last Vampire, was denied a shot because its running time was only 50 minutes. Film critics like Roger Ebert all but dismissed the category because the critically acclaimed Waking Life and the photoreal breakthrough Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within failed to make the final cut. However, people in the animation community questioned Waking Lifes eligibility altogether because it was interpolatedly rotoscoped from actors filmed on video making it more of an effect than animated. Moreover, some in the animation community sighed a sad sigh at the lack of a traditional animated feature in contention for the first Oscar.

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For its second year, the category saw an increase in eligible films to17. 2002s films included Adam Sandlers Eight Crazy Nights, Alibaba & The Forty Thieves, Eden, El Bosque Animado (The Living Forest), Hey Arnold! The Movie, Ice Age, Jonah A Veggie Tales Movie, Lilo & Stitch, The Powerpuff Girls Movie, The Princess and the Pea, Return to Never Land, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Spirited Away, Stuart Little 2, Treasure Planet and The Wild Thornberrys Movie. The second year also saw an increase in films from countries outside the U.S. and 2D features as well as the first eligible film to feature live action. The Academy responded by giving five nominations instead of three, which went to Ice Age, Lilo & Stitch, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Spirited Away and Treasure Planet.

The gripes died down, but some still questioned whether the category would allow room for animated features not from the major studios (i.e. Mutant Aliens nudged out by the box office and critically lambasted Treasure Planet). However, most people in toon town held out hope that Hayao Miyazakis masterpiece Spirited Away could wow Academy voters enough to peek out from behind the oppressing shadow of Disneys and Foxs money-making machines Lilo & Stitch and Ice Age.

Spirited Away opened eyes and door in the industry. © 2002 Nibariki. TGNDDTM. All rights reserved.

Spirited Away opened eyes and door in the industry. © 2002 Nibariki. TGNDDTM. All rights reserved.

All rejoiced as Miyazakis name was read. This win was surprising to many folks outside of the animation industry and created more interest in what could be accomplished with a quality animated foreign feature. Of the eligible films for 2004, five of the 11 films were foreign films. If Cowboy Bebop werent ruled ineligible, half of the films nominated would have originated outside of the U.S. (The Academy rules state that a film is not eligible for an Oscar if it was released more than two years prior to its U.S. release in its country of origin).

So the race for the 2004 Oscar has begun and the various studios have different approaches to promoting their films. Many of the major studios Disney, Warner Bros., DreamWorks, Paramount either declined to talk about their marketing strategies or didnt return inquiries. However, a Warner Bros. representative did say that for Looney Tunes: Back in Action the studio is taking a wait and see approach. Theyll push for an Oscar, but not the nomination. This is mainly due to how the nominations are selected. A panel of Academy members watches all the films and votes that evening for which films should be nominated. If your campaigns dont reach those select people than it was a waste.

Disney has the clear frontrunner with Finding Nemo, which trade magazine ads prove is also pursuing a Best Picture nod as well as Best Supporting Actress nomination for Ellen DeGeneres. The Mouse House also has Brother Bear and direct-to-video-turned-theatrical releases Jungle Book 2 and Piglets Big Movie in contention. Bear has a good shot with its solid box office success and favorable reviews. Jungle Book 2 and Piglets Big Movie ultimately look like the sacrificial lambs released theatrically only to ensure a category for its more high-profile brethren to win.

Sinbad sunk at the box office, sending its Oscar hopes to Davy Jones locker. © DreamWorks.

Sinbad sunk at the box office, sending its Oscar hopes to Davy Jones locker. © DreamWorks.

DreamWorks new specialty arm Go Fish Films seems to be holding back pushing its critical fav Millennium Actress to hard before nominations have been decided. What some see as a big blow to 2D animation, the studio even decided not to enter Sinbad: Legend of the Seven SeasI> for Oscar consideration. DreamWorks animation head Ann Daly explained, Based on the critical response the film received in the marketplace, we decided not to pursue an academy campaign.

For Miramaxs Pokemon Heroes and the German feature Jester Till, the pre-nomination push is nonexistent. Paramount has barely hyped Rugrats Go Wild! as well, but the recent push for the home entertainment release has probably kept the film in members minds. I mean, how could anyone forget the life-sized coconut sent out to people as promotional material.

When it comes to the last two eligible films, Sony Picture Classics Triplets of Belleville is riding a critical buzz like Spirited Away and Samuel Goldwyn Films Tokyo Godfather is trying to distinguish itself from the other, more high-profile, Satoshi Kon directed film Millennium Actress. Both companies are taking a more aggressive early push for their films.

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R.J. Millard, vp publicity & marketing at Samuel Goldwin Films, and Michael Barker, co-president at Sony Pictures Classics.

Both R.J. Millard, vp publicity & marketing at Samuel Goldwin, and Michael Barker, co-president at Sony Classics, said their goals were to get their films in front of the most people and let the pictures speak for themselves. The approach is not so far off from Warners, but when your film isnt playing on 2,000 plus screens, you have to bring the film to the people.

Millard and Barker said they obtained Triplets and Godfathers respectively because of the quality of the films. Sony Classics obtained Triplets when it played at the Cannes Film Festival and Goldwyn obtained Godfathers after it made its U.S. debut at the Big Apple Anime Festival. Both companies are taking out ads and setting up special screenings for groups and organizations.

Millard said Goldwyn had always planned to release Godfathers on January 16, 2004, but decided to enter it for the Oscar after they witnessed the love from fans and critics for the film as it played various festivals around the country. When asked about being overshadowed by Nemo or Kons other release Millennium Actress, Millard said, This film [Tokyo Godfathers] is anime that you dont see. It has real emotion and real characters. Its a very special, heart-warming story. We feel its a film that Academy members should see. I think the Animated Feature category is a category thats finding itself. Spirited winning is encouraging. It shows that Academy members love both commercial films and art films.

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With Triplets, Sony Pictures Classics makes its first foray into distributing animated features. Barker said, There have been a lot of inroads made in animation with Japanese anime and CGI. What this film [Triplets of Belleville] does is present an animated film that is as sophisticated and intelligent and rich as any live-action film. It is not a film for children. It is a film that parents can take their kids to see, but it is not a stereotypical vision of what people think of animated films.

When asked about the influence of the Oscar, Barker said, Its not influencing filmmakers. But it helps quality films get recognized that would not otherwise be recognized. If Triplets of Belleville gets nominated for an Oscar it will be given a higher profile than it would normally be given without the financing of a big studio.

In regards to the films recent critic society awards helping its chances for the Oscar, Barker commended, I dont know about the Oscar, but it will certainly help with audiences. Audiences that have trepidations of seeing an animated film that is not the generic G-rated studio film will be encouraged by every four star review and award it wins. Barker says with every award the distribution gets wider and the company is poised to go as wide as they can if it does get a nomination.

So has the Oscar influenced the animation industry? For smaller features, the answer is clearly yes. If Godfathers should get a nomination its box office run in January could get a big boost. Its also interesting to look at this years eligible films. This year, many publications declared that 2D animation was dead, but only one of the eligible films is 3D. Spirited Away piqued a lot of interest from people who would have never seen an animated film. Nominations could do the same for a lot of the competing films this year. Just imagine the higher profile films like Kirikou and the Sorceress or Princess Mononoke would have received if the Oscar category were around a few years ago.

This Japanese import holds some Hollywood creed being based on John Fords Three Godfathers. Photo courtesy of Destination Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films.

This Japanese import holds some Hollywood creed being based on John Fords Three Godfathers. Photo courtesy of Destination Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Even the Animated Short category is seeing more interest from studios. Pixar has experimented with shorts for years and won several Oscars. Last year, Sony entered the shorts race with their Oscar-winner The ChubbChubbs, which will now be developed into a feature. This year, Pixar is campaigning for its short Boundin, Sony for Early Bloomers and Fox/Blue Sky for Gone Nutty.

Only time will tell what the long reaching effects of the Oscar for Animated Feature will bring. Next year will see Go Fish Pictures release Innocence: Ghost in the Shell II and Samuel Goldwyn Films Kaena: The Prophecy two films that would have seen little big screen time in the U.S. only a few years ago. For those who complained that the new award would all but eliminate animated features from every being nominated for Best Picture ever again, the recognition the category brings allows more films a shot to be seen on the big screen. So what should be more important for animation fans right now seeing Spirited Away in all its glory projected in a darkened movie house or seeing another animated classic squashed by Hannibal Lecter and other live-action fare that the general Academy deems as more legitimate cinema? The Features category is clearly building respect for animated work outside of the community and allowing the films we love step out of the shadows of beginning considered cheap distractions for toddlers and adolescents.

Rick DeMott is managing editor of Animation World Network. Previously, he served as the production coordinator for sound production house BadaBing BadaBoom Productions and animation firm Perky Pickle Studios. Prior to that position, he served as associate editor of AWN.

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