Chapter 19: 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 the Samson 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.