Acad eats its shorts

In a major blow to makers of short films, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Board of Governors has decided to eliminate the documentary short and live-action short categories — but not animated shorts — from Academy Award competition as of the eligibility year that starts Jan. 1. Awards in the categories will be handed out for the last time at the 65th annual Oscars on March 29.

The elimination of the two categories–the first categories abandoned by the Academy since 1967–was one of several changes passed by the AMPAS Governors Tuesday night. Although Acad officials said the decision to drop the categories simply reflects changing realities in the film business, the decision drew sharp protests from filmmakers who work in the short-film field.

Because of the elimination of the categories, the Short Films Branch will now be reconstituted and renamed the Animation/Visual Effects Branch. Visual effects specialists currently in the Members-at-Large category will be transferred to the Animation/Visual Effects Branch and live-action filmmakers currently in the Short Films Branch will be transferred to the Members-at-Large category.

Also, the Board of Governors has decided to accept stunt coordinators for Academy membership.

The changes were recommended to the AMPAS Governors by the Long-Range Planning Committee, established in 1989 by then-Academy prez Karl Malden.

The committee is composed of all living past presidents of the Academy: Gene Allen, Richard Kahn, Fay Kanin, Howard W. Koch, Karl Malden, Walter Mirisch, Gregory Peck, Daniel Taradash and Robert Wise, in addition to current prez Robert Rehme and former executive director James M. Roberts.

The committee called for the elimination of the two short categories, saying, “These two awards have long ceased to reflect the realities of theatrical motion picture exhibition.”

“People have really noticed that very few moviegoers were spotting these films in a theatrical habitat during the last 20 years,” said Academy executive director Bruce Davis. “The committee just felt it was time to acknowledge that as much as we might like to have them continue in theatrical existence, the fact is they don’t. It was a matter of recognizing that fact.”

Although short films were an early staple of the movie business, feature films eventually relegated the shorts to the status of an added attraction in a variety of genres, including comedies, dramas, newsreels and cartoons.

In the late ’40s, shorts were gradually phased out in favor of double features. A few years later, short subjects virtually disappeared from most movie theaters.

“The categories for those kinds of films began in the ’30s and ’40s, when filmgoing was a very different kind of experience,” Davis said. “It would have been equally plausible in that period for us to give an Oscar for newsreels because that was also a big part of movies, but we didn’t.”

Oscars have been given to live-action short films since the fifth Academy Awards, for awards year 1931-32. The documentary short subject has been an Oscar category since 1943.

But many makers of shorts were nothing short of outraged at the Academy’s decision.

“This is very shocking,” said Jana Sue Memel, president of Chanticleer Films, the company behind a number live-action-short Oscar winners, including last year’s, “Session Man,” and “Ray’s Male Heterosexual Dance Hall,” which won several years ago.

“Shorts are the way that many filmmakers begin their career and it’s in essence taking away the validation of that and taking away the ability of very talented filmmakers who are not part of the Hollywood system to have their work recognized.

“If they don’t have the Academy to show off their work and they’re not going to one of the four major film schools, they might as well forget about getting a foot in the door of Hollywood,” Memel said. “It’s closing off access to hundreds and hundreds of young filmmakers.”

Memel went on to blast the Academy’s decision, saying, “I think it’s purely an economic decision based on not putting them on a telecast. As far as I’m concerned, take them off the telecast, but give awards in that category.”

“It had nothing to do with the telecast,” Davis responded. “These two short genres essentially exist as television forms and there’s another academy that handles that area.”

Asked why animated shorts and full-length docs weren’t eliminated by the Academy, Davis said, “The committee felt that for short animation and theatrical-length documentaries, there was enough of a heartbeat going that our appropriate role would be to encourage the continued existence of those in the theatrical venue rather than to do anything to discourage them.”

The new Animation/Visual Effects Branch will be represented on the Board of Governors by two people from the animation field and one visual effects specialist. The transition will be made in time for the formation of the 1993-94 board next June, with the election of a governor from the visual effects area.

As for the Acad’s decision to accept stunt coordinators for membership, Davis says the Academy sees them as an important part of a firmly entrenched genre of films.

A Stunt Coordinators Subcommittee will be formed to lay out the criteria by which stunt coordinators will be selected for membership.

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