By Rick DeMott
If you asked me whether the Annies had become irrelevant a few years ago, I, and many in and around the animation industry, would have quickly said, yes. But see what a few years have done. The Disney boycott really forced the hand of ASIFA and put them into a position to fix the problems many had been complaining about for years. Moves such as keeping Annie voting to professionals and forming the member's favorite category for the larger membership have gone a long way in bringing a sense of legitimacy back to the long running awards show.
So for those who wrote off the Annies or might still be writing them off ‑ is the awards show perfect? Of course not, but it is evolving. If we're lucky, the positive changes will remain and the faulty ones will disappear. In my humble opinion, the expansion of the Best Animated Feature category to 10 nominees is much like the kindergarten class that hands out a participation ribbon to the kid who comes in dead last. "Everyone's a winner" lessens the importance of being nominated. This doesn't help the sense of legitimacy.
But what has changed my tune? First off, the aforementioned voting changes. The return of Disney as a sponsor adds more strength to the argument that the changes are more positive than negative. I'll admit that I don't know the nuances of their issues and how ASIFA was or wasn't dealing with them, but what I do know is their absence crushed the sense of legitimacy and their return helped restore it. Perception is crucial.
Even with the controversy over the past few years, ASIFA has been making great strides to make the Annies a slicker show. The move from the Alex Theatre to Royce Hall was a big step. Embracing the growing overlap between animation and the larger entertainment industry, the Annies has brought in more Hollywood talent as presenters. Let's face it, it's great to see animation icons on stage, but they don't always make for an entertaining experience. And awards shows are just that - shows. Take note award winners, long lists of thanking people are boring. We live in the digital age folks… write a blog with the list of names, announce the URL at the awards show and keep the speech fun and short. Winsor McCay Award recipient Walt Peregoy gave the perfect speech that everyone should emulate. He showed his personality and made the audience laugh, while graciously accepting his award for his lifetime of achievement. Like he said, every asshole on the street should get a lifetime achievement award, because every lifetime is an achievement worth celebrating.
Some who trash the Annies might say the "positives" I just pointed out are actually negatives. So we come to the question, what is the purpose of an awards show anyway? For the Annies, it is a celebration of the best in animation, first and foremost. ASIFA has done itself a service in this mission in expanding the categories to embrace animation in all its forms from live-action features to gaming. But who makes this judgment of best? This goes back to the sense of legitimacy. The Oscars, with all their problems, carry a certain sense of legitimacy, because the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is perceived as an organization of the upper echelon of film professionals. It is the best in the film industry voting for the best of the film industry. Again, ASIFA's voting rules changes have brought it more in line with that standard. Fanboys and studio accountants voting for the best storyboard artist had put it more in line with the People's Choice Awards, which is about as legitimate as a three dollar bill with George W. Bush's face on it.
That's the awards part, now for the show part. And this is the place where the animation industry has to choose. Awards shows can go two ways. They can be insular events where the industry gets together, talks shop, pats each other on the back for a job well done and has a good meal afterward. There is nothing wrong with that. It really means something just to be recognized by one's peers.
But there is another way too. Awards shows can also be an opportunity to reach outside the insular community. The Oscars do that every year. As a kid, I dreamed of being a writer and was inspired by the filmmakers and artists on Oscar shows, wanting to be part of that club. It worked like a film lesson, recruiting video and vaudeville show all rolled into one. The Annies could be that for animation and seems to be moving in that direction. With mediums melding and transmedia becoming more of a reality, does it behoove the animation industry to do so? The Annies are a chance to honor the art of animation and the depth of its reach. Bringing in hosts that straddle the world of animation and live-action like Patton Oswalt, could bring in more people from the outside whether they be from the larger entertainment industry or fans wanting to learn more. I love animation and the people of the animation inspire me. This happened when the Annies were smaller and it still happens now. Sometimes you have to make the packaging sparkly to make certain people notice. Once you got their attention, you got 'em for good.
Is it bad to reach a wider audience? It does add more legitimacy to the event. It makes the statement, "I'm an Annie winner" mean something more when more people know what it means. Who does this help? It seems to help everybody. It helps the careers of the artists. It helps the studios in promoting their films. It helps animation by giving a big platform to show how amazing this industry is.
Gore Verbinski's statement at this year's Annies made me think about this. He said animation was a tight group and that he was waiting for these fuckers to show him the secret handshake. Is animation afraid to let Verbinskis and Spielbergs and other live-action folks into the club? Is displeasure with the expanding "Hollywoodization" of the Annies just emblematic of a greater unease to let the "cool kids" into the clubhouse after they made the animation folk sit at the table in the back corner of the film industry lunchroom for so many years? Is this just the 2D vs. CG debate in a new disguise? Who won and lost that battle?
There is nothing else like the Annie Awards for animation. The animation industry has a choice. It can evolve with the Annies and the industry and entertainment in general, or it can keep its club doors closed to anyone who can't define an inbetweener or pontificate about the evils of rotoscoping. The entertainment industry is going to evolve regardless. Could the Annie Awards be one big sparkly place to remind them of the vast array of animation styles and artistry? Once you get them, you might get them for good. Who knows what exciting transformative things could happen then.
Rick DeMott is the Senior Content Associate for Mattel's Barbie.com. He was formerly the Director of Content for Animation World Network.