Studios enter multiple toons in Oscar race

Awards odds boosted by submitting several pics

In 2001, when the Academy added its animated feature category, the org included a clause by which it would withdraw the award in years when fewer than eight toons were eligible to receive it. Little did the Acad suspect that the sector would soon be generating 20 pics a year — a volume that not only validates the category but encourages prolific studios to enter more than one entry per Oscar season.

At first glance, companies such as Disney (which has both Pixar’s “Wall-E” and the Burbank-made “Bolt” in contention) and DreamWorks Animation (which released both “Kung Fu Panda” and “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” this year) seem to face a tough decision about which of their films to get behind.

But Anne Globe, head of worldwide marketing for DWA, believes both of her contenders have a shot and says the studio plans to launch campaigns that focus on the individual strengths of each film.

“‘Madagascar’ is a great, all-family comedy that we think will have broad appeal, and ‘Kung Fu Panda’ was set in ancient China, was a comedy and also has a lot of action elements,” she says. “Each is unique and has different things that we can highlight in the campaign.”

A similar strategy paid off in 2004, when DWA snagged noms for both “Shark Tale” and “Shrek 2.”

The branch itself adopts a “more the merrier” approach, expanding the ballot from three to five slots in years when 16 or more films are submitted (so far, that’s only happened once, in 2002, though other years have been close).

With at least 20 toons slated to receive qualifying runs in Los Angeles theaters by year’s end, that should have given some studios an incentive to push all of their films forward.

Consider how this year’s race might have been different if Fox had submitted “Space Chimps” and Universal had entered “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything: A VeggieTales Movie” — neither film was likely to be nominated, but they would have pushed the total submission count to 16, boosting the chances for the studio’s more polished contenders: “Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!” in Fox’s case and “The Tale of Despereaux” for U.

Other 2008 toons sitting out the race: IFC’s “Fear(s) of the Dark,” the Weinstein Co.’s “Azur and Asmar,” Roadside Attractions’ “Chicago 10,” Lucasfilm’s “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” and Indian toon “Roadside Romeo” from Yash Raj Films.

Some indie animation companies simply don’t see the point of going head-to-head with box office and critical heavyweights, possibly underestimating how open-minded the nominating process can be. Whereas most Oscar categories benefit when distributors proactively campaign for voters to see their films by hosting screenings and mailing DVDs to Academy members, the animation category offers a level playing field.

Toon contenders must submit paperwork and a print to the Academy by early November. Those films are then screened for a panel made up of members from the animation branch and the Academy at large, who rate each film via secret ballot — a system that makes it harder for studios to target the nominating voters directly and protects the integrity of their selections.

Some were surprised last year when Fox’s heavily promoted “The Simpsons Movie” was passed over in favor of “Ratatouille,” “Surf’s Up” and “Persepolis.” Though the latter film had earned less than $1 million when the nominations were announced, it embodied many of the qualities the branch celebrates.

“‘Persepolis’ was a very personal narrative film, and the style fit it so beautifully, and ‘Surf’s Up’ had this really innovative technique,” says John Lasseter, who is an Academy governor in the short films and animated features branch in addition to being chief creative officer of the Pixar and Disney studios.

In Lasseter’s view, while box office is a good indicator of a film’s popular appeal, the Academy’s procedure assures that each film is judged on its own merits, with the three (or five) pics that receive the highest scores then advancing as nominees in the category. “That’s why some of the films in the past that made the most money didn’t get nominated,” he says.

But there are other reasons to campaign for animated movies, such as their ability to land nominations in other categories. This year, Disney is giving “Wall-E” an especially big push in hopes that voters will consider it for picture as well, and Globe explains that DWA is targeting multiple categories for its films.

“With ‘Kung Fu Panda,’ we were able to focus on some of the technical achievements in the movie, such as editing and sound,” she says. “Madagascar,” meanwhile, will get a push for a musical collaboration between composer Hans Zimmer and hip-hop artist, who also voices a character in the film.

“We don’t sweat it out as to which child to pick until you find they’re both nominated,” says one veteran Oscar consultant.

One year, the Mouse House saw three of its films vying for the same prize: “Lilo & Stitch,” “Spirited Away” and “Treasure Planet,” with the most esoteric of the bunch — the Hayao Miyazake-directed, Disney-distributed “Spirited Away” — taking home the Oscar.

That type of situation, where one studio dominates the category, is exactly what the Academy hoped to avoid with the category. Lasseter, for his part, welcomes enough competition to be able to increase the number of nominees.

“I’m always very excited when we get that many animated films out,” says the director of “Cars.” “And to see all these studios believe in animation and produce quality films — I think that’s what exciting for me, that they’re still willing to invest.”

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