Oscar Rodeo Rules: Short Animation Submission Qualification and Rule 19

AWN attempts to set the record straight and eliminate confusion surrounding the submission rules for short film Academy Award qualification.

Image credit: Todd Wawrychuk

©A.M.P.A.S.

Animated shorts have always contained a certain outlaw spirit. Unhindered by the marketing concerns, the big budgets, or the massive machine of a feature production, a short can speed ahead full blast, fueled by the dreams of the ambitious, the idealists, and the proudly nuts. Filmmakers, knowing their baby is headed to the festival circuit or the open range of the internet, can craft something risky, genre-defining, or intensely personal. Making a short animated film, though it can feel like a Sisyphean task at times, can also feel like a radical act of pure cinematic rebellion.

But when it comes to that most prestigious and coveted of prizes – the Academy Award for Short Animated Film – eligibility for nomination is strictly a matter of playing by the rules. Rules, it seems, that many younger filmmakers are unaware of.  Rules that can cost otherwise worthy work a chance at Oscar gold.

Let’s try to set the record straight and talk a bit about the prevailing confusion surrounding the rules of short film qualification.  In addition to digging into the Academy’s rulebook, we’ll address the potentially controversial questions the rules raise (that, as it turns out, have fairly non-controversial answers).

So, what’s all the fuss about? Let the rules regarding short film eligibility speak for themselves. The following copy regarding Rule 19, which governs the Short Film awards, is taken directly from Academy’s website, accessible here (http://www.oscars.org/awards/academyawards/rules/rule19.html):

(III. Eligibility, Rule A, 1) The picture must have been publicly exhibited for paid admission in a commercial motion picture theater in Los Angeles County for a run of at least three consecutive days with at least two screenings a day. All eligible motion pictures must be publicly exhibited using 35mm or 70mm film, or in a 24- or 48- frame progressive scan Digital Cinema format with a minimum projector resolution of 2048 by 1080 pixels, source image format conforming to ST 428-1:2006 D-Cinema Distribution Master—Image Characteristics; image compression (if used) conforming to ISO/IEC 15444-1 (JPEG 2000), and image and sound file formats suitable for exhibition in commercial Digital Cinema sites.

OR

(III. Eligibility, Rule A, 3) The film must have won a qualifying award at a competitive film festival, as specified in the Academy Festival List. Proof of the award must be submitted with the entry. The Academy's Short Film Awards Festival List is available on the Academy's website or may be obtained from the Academy. (List of qualifying festivals provided here: http://www.oscars.org/awards/academyawards/rules/shortsfestivals.html)

(III. Eligibility, Rule A, 4)  A student film may also qualify by winning a Gold Medal award in the Academy's 2012 Student Academy Awards competition in the Animation, Narrative, Alternative, or Foreign Student Film award category. Winners in the Documentary category are not eligible.**

 Rule A is an especially interesting feature of the Short Film qualification, one we’ll revisit with a critical eye and professional input later on in this article. Overall, the initial section of the rules of eligibility is fairly straightforward. For example, it details parameters for screening the film in a public venue, with projection meeting specific standards of theatrical aspect ratio, with audio that is "typical Digital Cinema Package", i.e. a 5.1 channel surround mix, or at least three discrete channels suitable for a theatrical environment. Many of the technical specifications, such as the acceptable formats for digital submission, are altered as needed, but are rarely the cause of serious confusion or elimination for any filmmaker who has worked in the industry (or at least knows someone who does).

Instead, the area that trips up many otherwise polished films and is often the cause of disqualification is clause B of the Eligibility rules:

(III. Eligibility, Rule B) A short film may not be exhibited publicly anywhere in any nontheatrical form, including but not limited to broadcast and cable television, home video, and Internet transmission, until after its Los Angeles theatrical release, or after receiving its festival or Student Academy Award.  Excerpts of the film totaling no more than ten percent of its running time are exempted from this rule.

In many cases, filmmakers who have embraced the Wild West of the Internet to showcase their finished work in whole form have end up shooting themselves in the foot. Hoping to get notice from potential clients, or to have a single link to provide studio headhunters, many filmmakers are attracted by the simplicity of online publication coupled with the promise of visibility. Additionally, the lure of television or, increasingly, large-readership website distribution as a platform for new work leaves a lot of great shorts cut from Academy consideration. Getting disqualified because of a distribution deal is an especially frequent story for young animators, often tempted at the start of their careers to take whatever promotion opportunities come their way. If everyone’s putting their films up, it can feel pointless not to join in the world wide party.

So, should those who want to join the big leagues hold out, or give in? This question, like many raised by assessing the Academy rules, is less a matter of subjective reasoning, and more one of perspective. Ron Diamond, producer, festival organizer, Academy voter, and ringleader of the Short Animation Nominee Press Tour for the last twelve years, was able to bring his experience to bear on the issue. When asked if he often sees the Academy rules causing confusion, and why that might be, he responded that it’s a simple matter of people not knowing the process because they don’t read the rules. Diamond is committed to changing the shadowy nature of the nominee eligibility, having personally presented numerous programs at film festivals detailing why it’s worth it to comply with Rule 19.

“I've gotten up in front of 700 producers and said ‘Look, this is how it works,’” he explained.  “Yet, every year, there are a couple films that make it into every festival, that are great films, and you say ‘Why didn’t this get nominated?’ And it’s because they disqualified themselves.”

When asked if the required exclusivity, with respect to keeping a completed film offline and out of broadcast deals, could hurt young or less established filmmakers, Diamond was adamant about holding back. “You’re rarely more than a year out [from the Oscars],” he reasoned, citing that it’s always worth it to sit on your film for an awards cycle if it has a chance of getting into the running. As for how you can tell if your film is worthy of Oscar consideration, Diamond recommends analyzing past winners and nominees to get a feel for what’s within the Academy’s scope. Usually, he says, a first film might be a delight for the eyes, but not an Oscar hopeful. Most filmmakers are fairly self-selecting in this area for just that reason; Diamond says that less than 50 films are submitted every year to the Animated Shorts category, far fewer than one might expect.

To a newcomer, one of the more daunting elements of the qualification rules is the option of arranging a screening in a commercial theater within L.A. County. As stated above, the run must be at least three days, with a minimum of two screenings a day. Arranging the run can qualify a film in lieu of winning a prize from one of the listed festivals. This begs the question of whether or not such a rule grants an unfair advantage to persons or studios with money that can afford to bankroll a 3-day run. Diamond, however, points out that the price of arranging a screening is relatively small when compared to all the shipping and processing costs a filmmaker incurs submitting their film to each of the major festivals, which can add up fast. In fact, he surmises, it levels the playing field more than anything; he says that you could count on your fingers the number of people who attended the L.A. theatrical runs of the last two Oscar-winning films. As he pointed out, when it comes to the Academy, it’s a matter of a tree falling in a forest; it doesn’t matter if there’s no one around to hear it go down.

One additional benefit of this rule to filmmakers may not be apparent.  The screening regulation, which Diamond mentioned pre-dates his tenure, also provides a means for a film to qualify that may have missed much earlier festival submission deadlines. In other words, a film that was either finished after the major film festival submission deadlines have passed, or for whatever reasons was not submitted, can gain Oscar qualification merely with the 3-day theatrical run. Theatrical premier dates matter for submission to an Oscar round, and if filmmakers have not quite made the dates for certain festivals, the screening option saves them from having to wait until the next year’s qualification period.

Questions about cost and potential screening advantage led to another concern; that it’s inherently unfair to pit independently financed and produced works, or works from small studios, against films from giants like Pixar, whose shorts are routinely nominated.But Diamond challenges this assumption, asking how many years it has been since a major studio took the Short Animation honors. Surprisingly, one might find, the answer is not since Sony Picture’s The ChubbChubbs! won ten years ago. The Academy members are discerning voters, Diamond says, who “try to elevate themselves above the cost of the film. We never know.”

“All the money in the world doesn't mean anything. It doesn't mean you'll win. Sometimes [films] suffer under their own importance or subject. Polish is not as important as the subject.” It is here, Diamond explains, that independent studios have the advantage over big studios.  Academy voters may be jaded by short film’s employing the same big studio style and rhythm they see year round in theatres. “When you're driving a titanic-sized ship, if you want to turn on a dime, you have to make that decision a half-day in advance. In a short film, you can do whatever you want. Studios, despite their best intentions, make certain kinds of films.”

Knowing Diamond’s commitment to improving Academy rules literacy, I concluded by asking what he felt was the root cause of the misunderstandings, and what advice he would give, as a seasoned producer, to those for the first time facing decisions like distribution schedule and getting the word out on their film. The issue, he emphasized, is very much one of education.

“I think it's important for faculty, those who are teaching animation, to be knowledgeable, and let students know [what the rules are]. Not for student films, but future works, so they can be prepared when they go on. If they don't know [the rules], they can't make informed decisions.” Diamond spoke with great passion about the need to treat students as future professionals, and train them to conduct themselves that way from the start. For those who might jump the gun, Diamond cautions, they need to be aware of Rule 19, and “what the value of the proposition is…that it might be worth holding back a film.” In this day and age, there’s no reason not to keep a film on a password-protected site like Vimeo, or to distribute a file to a limited audience of fans via e-mail list.

“Idon't know of any film that can't be sold by 30 seconds of footage,” Diamond said, urging those eager to promote their work to cut a trailer in keeping with Academy (and certain larger festival) regulations. “The tools are there, use them. It's not about the Oscar, it's about exposing your work. You should profit off of your films, build e-mail lists, let people get excited, let them get inspired. Why give it all away?”

* The Student Academy Awards are entirely different story, with their own set of qualifying rules, and a tiered system of local and regional competition rounds before the medal nominees can be decided upon.

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Zoe Chevat is a Los Angeles-based animator, graphic artist, sculptor, and author of both academic and fictional work. Originally from northern New Jersey, she graduated from Bennington College and is currently an MFA candidate in Experimental Animation at CalArts. She has worked on music videos and shorts for AfterEd TV, UnBroiled Inc., and Ariel Hart/DeMille Productions, as well as the anthological Today's Forecast, which debuted at the Internationale Kurzfilmtage, Oberhausen, Germany. A proud cinephile, she has been blogging about gender and film/video media for female geek-oriented newsblog The Mary Sue, and has been a recurring guest on a new podcast series for Anime News Network, entitled "Chicks on Anime." Most of her critical writing is concerned with the portrayal of sexuality and gender in genre work, with a particular focus on trope subversion for fun and profit. She provides a ground-level insider's view on the new generation of animation fans and creators, with an eye to negotiating that tricky space between high and low art…or at least to rattling some cages along the way. For more rants, spewings, and inky scribbles, follow her AWN blog Off-Model as well as her website at http://www.zoechevat.com.

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