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How To Succeed in Animation

Chapter 20: Oscar Comes Calling

Who could have predicted this? I just read that Oscar winners live longer. In our case, the Oscar gave our life an instant boost, and a perpetual publicity handle. We managed five nominations, and have been living in the glow ever since. But was Bill Snyder able to melt that golden statuette down into real dollars?

Of the two films I had brought to Prague on my first trip, Samson Scrap, was intended as a pilot for a TV series. Munro was a one-shot. It was obvious that these two films could not make themselves, so a second trip to Prague was planned for March 1960. In my New York studio, Al Kouzel prepared the layout drawings. I directed the voice recordings, and made timing sheets for Munro and Samson Scrap. Then, in Prague I explained everything to the Czech animation staff assigned to our first projects. I was going to have to direct these films partly from New York, so I arranged for Zdenka to send me the 35mm film tests of the pencilled animation scenes. I would then edit the scenes together on the Moviola viewing machine in my studio, and send back my comments and revisions. It was cumbersome and took time, though we were able to make use of Czechoslovak Filmexport's access to airfreight. There were no international couriers, such as FedEx, DHL, or UPS, to ship to Prague in those days, and no lightweight videocassettes.

It was a whole new way of working, but it did work, and we were proud of theSamson Scrap pilot film. When we had it all together, Bill Snyder came over for the screening. The second the end title came on he leapt from his chair and shouted, "If I can't sell this, I'm no salesman!" He never sold it. It wasn't that he didn't have plenty of offers, but he kept upping the ante, holding out for yet bigger offers. He went so far as to commission us to make two more episodes, but he had turned off so many potential buyers, that we ended up with just the three films. That was a totally needless failure, as everyone thought Samson Scrap would be a winner. So it went with Snyder.

In the case of Munro, Bill got it into his head that it could well be an Oscar contender. Yes, even cartoon films win Oscars each year, though few people outside of our branch ever notice.

Every year, three or four animation films are nominated by a committee of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Short Film branch. The final selection is by members of the Short Film division, who can vote only at screenings of the nominated films. In order to qualify, the rules state that the film must be shown to a paying audience at a commercial movie theater in Los Angeles County for at least three consecutive days prior to November 30th of the year of production, or it must have won the Best-in-Category award at a recognized film festival. For Munro it was 1960, and it almost didn't make it. As the deadline approached, the Prague studio lab trashed the negative. Knowing how much it meant to us, Zdenka was in tears, a rare lapse for that unflappable woman. But she rallied, acted as assistant to the cameraman, had the entire film reshot, recut, redeveloped, and reprinted in a flash of action previously unknown in socialist Czechoslovakia. She badgered Filmexport to airfreight it, still damp out of the lab, and Snyder had it in hand on the very last possible day, got it into a previously arranged theater, and it qualified!

By the spring of 1961 I had already been working well over a year in Prague, and I'd nearly forgotten about the Oscar ceremony in Hollywood. Snyder had informed us earlier that Munro had been nominated; we were thrilled and satisfied with just that, remembering how close we had come to missing the qualification date. As director of the film, I should have been at the ceremony, but I was happy to be in Prague with Zdenka, and busy with several new films. We were out of the loop, and in those days there was never anything positive or interesting about the USA on Czech TV.

Out of the blue came a telegram, not from Snyder but from Bobe Cannon. Then another came from my mother, and from friends and other relatives: We had won!We had actually won the Oscar! Bill Snyder's cable drifted in several days later. Then came letters from Hollywood colleagues telling us that Snyder had accepted the award with the following remarks: "Thanks to Gene, Jules, and Al." Gene who? Jules who? Al who?

It was Jules Feiffer of course, who wrote the great story, and it was Al Kouzel, from my staff at GDA, Inc. who drew the key poses and layout sketches for the film. Later, when we saw a film of the Oscar ceremony, we realized that Snyder had entered Munro under his own name!

The project had of course been created within my New York studio, before Snyder even appeared on the scene. The story adaptation, dialogue soundtrack and graphic preparation had all been done under my direction, at my company, and the film rights had been contracted to me. Snyder didn't even pay me for my direction of the film. I was to get a percentage of the "net profits" (There were none; even Forrest Gump made no net profits!). All Snyder paid for, (and that was a pittance), was for the animation production at Zdenka's studio.

His one and only venture into the creative aspect of the film was an attempt to castrate one of the strongest lines of Feiffer's dialogue: An army officer is addressing a group of new recruits:

"I want to welcome you men to the Army. This is a time of great struggle. I will explain the issues: Our side is in favor of God. The other side isn't. Any questions?"

Snyder was terrified that we were making a satirical reference to God in a cartoon. He was pressuring me to add another o: "Our side is in favor of good. The other side isn't." Even if I would have acquiesced to such a cop-out, which I was not prepared to do, I knew that Jules would have considered it a breach of my promise to be completely faithful to his story. Snyder insisted that we at least record the alternate line. (Howard Morris performed all the voices except the voice of 4-year-old Munro, which was my 3-year-old son Seth, and the voice of a little girl and Munro's mother, performed by my former wife Marie.) I am proud to say that the film retained the original line. Big deal.

So, for putting up a few bucks Snyder got to leap onto the stage at the Oscar ceremony, and in front of the watching world, pick up an Oscar with his name engraved on it. The original Oscar resided on his night table for the rest of his life, while I must be satisfied with a copy.

Of course, as a member of the Academy I later wrote them and registered my protest of the awarding the statuette to the wrong person. The unfairness was acknowledged, but it was within the letter of the rules of that time to award a Short Film Oscar to the "producer" of the film, but the understanding was that the "producer" was the person who actually made the film. Anyway, the deed was done, and it was Academy policy never to retract an award, nor ever to issue a duplicate statuette. So I was S.O.L., as the saying goes. But my raising the issue — and I'm sure that I was not the only one - had its effect. The Rules are now crystal clear, to wit: "The recipient of the statuette will be the individual person most directly responsible for the concept and the creative execution of the film."

But what did it matter then? I knew whose Oscar it really was; (so, for that matter, did the Academy. They wrote me that under the rules at that time, they had no choice but to accept the name of whoever entered the film.) In those days I was too preoccupied to even think about it, or to take seriously our chances of actually winning. I always knew it was Julie Feiffer's story and drawings that were the key ingredients. To Zdenka and me, the real meaning of the Oscar was that it virtually guaranteed we would be together.

Almost immediately, the publicity resulted in our winning a contract from MGM to produce Tom & Jerry cartoons, and from King Features Television to produce Popeye and Krazy Kat cartoons. None of these were what I really wanted to do, but it was work, it would keep me here, and it was great experience for the Czech animators, having a go at these typical American cartoon characters.

I do feel some guilt for intruding upon the Czech animation culture, which in many ways is more mature and subtle than ours. But the fact is, they enjoyed doing this work, and it did prepare them for what was to come, bringing them into the wider, international aspects of our art and craft.

I do credit Bill Snyder for many things. First and foremost, on a personal level - whether it was his intention or not - he did bring me to Zdenka. And on a professional level, he certainly did have excellent taste in his choice of stories to produce. Aside from those books already mentioned, he was the first person to discover and acquire the film rights to J.R.R.Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings.

In addition, he backed my Munro, Samson Scrap & Delilah, Nudnik, Terr'ble Tessie, Big Sam & Punky, the satiric "Self-Help" projects, and many others, most of which you never heard of, because his big flaw was in having large dreams with small results. He was never able to do anything with the treasury of films he backed, and were produced especially for him.

Even after we won him the Oscar and three other nominations, including two nominations in one year - something no other animation director had done before - all he was able to get for us were custom projects with characters owned by others, such as Tom & Jerry, Popeye, And Krazy Kat. He was never able to do anything with the much better items we created for him, and which he himself chose to produce.

Later on he was forced to sell the rights to The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings due to a lack of cash and some failed attempts at distribution deals. That was Bill Snyder's tragedy.

Today, Snyder is gone. His son Adam, a much more level-headed person, has taken over his father's company and film library, and has managed to bring our old and nearly forgotten films back to life. Sunbow Entertainment revived the long-snoozing Nudnik, and commissioned us to produce a 13 part series, which they named, "Gene Deitch Presents The Nudnik Show," featuring the character I created 30 years earlier for Paramount release. This, along with a tribute to me at New York's Museum of Modern Art in April, 1996, was engineered by Adam Snyder, who has gone to great effort to make up for his father's foibles. I thank him for that.

Bill Snyder, his Rolls Royce, and Zdenka, at Bill's Larchmont home

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