Despite prestige, films remain elusive and publicly unavailable

Although short animated film may be one of the more puzzling categories on the office Oscar pool, it’s usually not too hard to predict which titles will be showing up on the ballot. Likely nominees can be culled from the awards lists of animation festivals such as Annecy and the World Animation Celebration.

Yet many films are too new to have been seen by the public outside of their qualifying theatrical runs because many submit their projects to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences before entering the festival circuit.

Last year’s winner, “Father and Daughter,” had some festival exposure in late 2000, but it was only after winning Oscar gold in March that the film began collecting Annecy, British Animation and British Academy of Film & Television awards as well as Europe’s prestigious cash prize, the Cartoon D’Or.

Drawing attention

This year, AMPAS received 49 submissions for the animated short category, a few less than last year. A reviewing committee comprising volunteer members of the short films and feature animation branch will select up to 10 films for a branch screening Feb. 2. In previous years, this short-list screening has been held on a weeknight, drawing less than a third of the approximately 300 voting members of the branch.

“This year, we are tinkering with the scheduling to see if we can up the participation. We’re having the screening on a Saturday in hopes of attracting more members,” says filmmaker Jon Bloom, the new chair of the short films and feature animation branch, suggesting that out-of-towners could fly to L.A. for the weekend event.

Once the nominees are identified, filmmakers are flooded with requests to see their elusive films. Few people actually get to see the nominated shorts, a fact the Academy is trying to change with a national distribution program to screen nominated works at major-market U.S. theaters during the weeks before the award show.

The only way to see these films has been festivals and touring programs like ResFest, Dfilm and Spike & Mike’s Festival of Animation.

Popular sneaks

“Over the years we have not only been the only ones to show this stuff but the first to discover it,” says Craig Decker, better known as Spike. His Spike & Mike’s Festival of Animation has distributed many Academy Award nominees and winners in its annual touring package.

Spike also points out that his La Jolla, Calif.-based company has premiered the shorts that spawned “South Park” and “Beavis and Butt-head,” and has financed films by the creators of “The Powerpuff Girls,” “Celebrity Death Match” and even the co-director of “Monsters, Inc.,” who crashed at Spike’s beach house while making films for the Sick & Twisted fest.

Other than the touring fests, which offer revenues from arthouse theatrical runs, the commercial market for short films is limited, especially with the downsizing of the Internet distribution companies. But even with little financial reward in the end, it still takes significant budgets to make an attention-getter: “Father and Daughter” cost about $200,000.

Opening doors

But a successful short can lead to other lucrative opportunities. Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network are always looking at short films and scouting talent at festivals.

“If you look at the creators we work with, a lot of these people come from the independent animation world,” says Linda Simensky, VP of original animation at Cartoon Network, who hires directors to create 10 short pilots per year.

“Most creative and technical innovation seems to come out of commercials and short films,” she adds, pointing to Pixar as an example. “They made a lot of short films and commercials before they made ‘Toy Story.’ “

On the academic front, the number of schools with animation programs has grown in recent years.

“Student films continue to be more impressive each year,” says Bloom, noting the increasing professionalism in student film production, with real budgets, and directors who are pros going back to school or advanced students in graduate degree programs.

With school enrollment up in the post-dotcom boom, one can expect to see even more films, and the current scarcity of animation jobs will spur independent film production, says Simensky. “With the way the economy is, a lot of animators are out of work, and a lot of them are going to make films, and that’s a good thing.”

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