Long live the shorts

In a stunning turnaround, the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voted unanimously Tuesday night to maintain Oscar categories for short documentaries and live-action short films.

The decision, a major victory for the filmmakers, was lauded by members of the short films branch and others in the production community. It comes more than a year after the board voted to eliminate the awards from Oscar consideration and drop the docu and live-action shorts categories after last year’s ceremonies (Daily Variety, Nov. 19, 1992).

While many makers of short films expressed relief at the Acad’s vote, others were caught by surprise.

“I’m delighted and overwhelmed by the unanimous endorsement,” said short films branch governor Saul Bass, a 1968 Oscar winner for his docu short “Why Man Creates.”

“I was gratified that there was so little doubt left,” Bass added. “Everybody seemed to be very settled that this was the right thing to do. Credit should go to the board that they were able to look at their own action and turn around on it. Of course, they needed a little nudging.”

“I’m shocked and thrilled,” added Jana Sue Memel, president of Chanticleer Films, the company behind a number of live-action short Oscar winners, including “Session Man” and “Ray’s Male Heterosexual Dance Hall.””I knew there was a lot of support, but you can never tell in these situations. It shows the Academy’s openness to newer filmmakers.”

Shortly after the 1992 shorts-dropping announcement set off a firestorm of protests, the board delayed action on its proposal for a year to allow study of the issues (Daily Variety, Dec. 17, 1992).

Angry directors

The original decision was attacked by Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg, Mel Brooks, Joe Dante, Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Philip Kaufman, John Landis, George Lucas, Michael Mann, John Singleton, Robert Zemeckis and others.

The group united to protest the decision and took out a full-page ad in Daily Variety in an attempt to influence the governors.

A panel made up of Academy governors Bass, June Foray, Saul Zaentz, Norman Jewison, Roddy McDowall and Robert Boyle, and chaired by Donn Camberin, was set up after that decision to gather information on the viability of shorts in the world of present-day exhibition. Their findings, contained in a 92-page report, were given to the rest of the Acad’s 36 governors early last week.

Influential report

The report helped prove that shorts are still a viable filmmaking form, sources said. And while the Academy originally said the “two awards have long ceased to reflect the realities of theatrical motion picture exhibition” and that the films were not seen in traditional theatrical venues in 20 years, the report stressed that whole new areas are opening up for shorts. These include interactive, ride films and IMAX.

“We’re talking about theaters in theme parks and major expositions,” Academy president Arthur Hiller said, “as well as venues such as Iwerks’ Cinetropolis theaters and others dedicated to special processes like Showscan. The board clearly felt that all of these sites fall within the Academy’s ‘theatrical film’ province.”

Hiller, himself a shorts supporter, credited the report.

“There was no doubt that it was the strength of the report,” Hiller said. “It was a very thorough report. It looked carefully at the past and the present of shorts and that will now help with the future of shorts.”

One changing his mind was producer Howard W. Koch, who said, “For many years, I felt the short subjects and documentaries were not part of us at the Academy, but I realized I was wrong. They certainly are a part of us.”

All aboard

“They railroaded this thing through a year ago,” another member of the shorts branch said. “They sprang this on the shorts governors and they voted it through that night. That’s what’s great about this reversal. Once they listened to the outcry of this support, they changed their minds.”

Others saw the ordeal as a benefit to the shorts branch.

“The fact that the branch was challenged was a good thing, because it was a wake-up call to the branch about what we could do better and what we could do more of,” said noted trailer producer Jon Bloom, who spearheaded the original protest against the Academy. “It helped us recognize our importance in the role of the Academy. The people in our branch are filmmakers.”

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