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Animation Oscar Race Gives Little Films a Shot at Glory

Two years ago, when “The Lego Movie” was snubbed in Oscar’s animated feature category, fans of the movie cried foul. How could the year’s top-grossing ($258 million domestic) and best-reviewed (rated 96% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) cartoon get shut out of the race?

What the outraged failed to recognize was that the Academy nominating committee were not against “The Lego Movie”; they just happened to like five other toon contenders more. You see, of all the categories competing for Oscar, the animated feature award has perhaps the purest selection process.

The committee itself is made up of members of the animation branch, as well as those from other complementary disciplines, such as editing and visual effects. “We want people who really understand the craft picking the nominees,” says Bill Kroyer, a governor of the Academy’s short films and feature animation branch. “The committee this year will be the biggest ever. We have a really large cross-section of people with a targeted expertise.”

Unlike, say, the best picture race, in which voters pick their favorites from memory, selecting from among several hundred qualifying films released in Los Angeles theaters that year, the animated feature category tops out at around 20 eligible films, all of which are screened for the nominating committee. In order for their votes to count, each member must see AND RATE at least two-thirds of the qualifying films. (The foreign-language category works much the same way, except that with a whopping 85 movies in the mix, there are simplu too many foreign films for any one person to watch, so the submissions are split up among three groups.) In animation, Academy members see all — or most — of the contenders, and instead of simply naming their favorites, they must evaluate each film individually, scoring them on a scale of 6 (poor) to 10 (excellent). Then, the five films with the highest scores appear on the general ballots sent to all Oscar members, who aren’t required to watch all five and nearly always pick the most recent popular success.

“It’s a subjective art form. Everybody has a different way they evaluate things that they value,” Kroyer says. “It’s better for you to evaluate each film according to an absolute scale that you think reflects the quality of that film.”

Just imagine how different the best picture race might look if voters were expected to watch all — or two-thirds — of the eligible movies. That means tiny, artistic toons made for just a few million dollars (such as “Song of the Sea” and “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” which were both nominated the year of “The Lego Movie”) have a real shot against those made on massive, nine-figure budgets (a la “Big Hero 6” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2”).

Of course, as one might expect from the group of animation professionals and admirers who do the nominating, the scores skew toward the toons that strike the group as most impressive — which probably explains why “The Lego Movie,” for all its innovation and wit, lost out against a pair of auteur-driven, hand-drawn toons.

What does that mean for this year’s crop? Four of the year’s top-grossing films have earned more than $300 million: blockbuster Pixar sequel “Finding Dory,” Illumination original “The Secret Life of Pets,” Walt Disney Animation’s human-free “Zootopia” — four, if you count Disney’s “The Jungle Book,” in which nearly all the main characters (except Mowgli) are animated. But the nominating committee will also be scoring a handful of well-reviewed festival movies, including Cannes-selected “The Red Turtle” from Oscar winner Michaël Dudok de Wit, and Rémi Chayé’s “Long Way North,” which earned the audience award at 2015’s Annecy Animated Film Festival.

In the past, the group has demonstrated genuine affection for stop-motion, which is a good sign for “Kubo and the Two Strings,” the most intricate project to date from Laika (the detail-oriented studio responsible for “Coraline,” which has been nominated for its three previous features), as well as GKids’ French-language entry “My Life as a Zucchini,” winner of top prize at this year’s Annecy, which is also a foreign-language submission from Switzerland.

In recent years, the greatest beneficiary of the Academy’s every-toon-deserves-an-equal-shot policy has been GKids, a distributor that specializes in bringing the world’s best animation to American audiences, earning eight nominations since 2011. Created by Eric Beckman, GKids grew out of the New York Intl. Children’s Film Festival, which Beckman co-founded, to fill a niche in the market.

“If ‘Jurassic World’ doesn’t get a nomination for best picture, no one’s surprised. But there’s more to animation than PG-rated comedies with $120 million budgets,” Beckman says. “For a long time, we were aware of amazing films being made that weren’t getting distributed in North America, or else were getting the most perfunctory straight-to-video releases, and we knew there were audiences for these films.”

He struck a deal with Universal Pictures Home Entertainment to help bring these movies to cinemas and retail stores, such as Walmart.

The Academy recognition has been the best possible boost for business, raising the profile of these micro-releases far more than the company’s limited marketing budget ever could. While Pixar and DreamWorks spend more on P&A than most GKids films cost to produce, for indies, it almost makes more sense to campaign for an Oscar and let the resulting publicity do the rest. But GKids’ success has created competition as well, and now other distributors see modest commercial potential in releasing animated features — companies that focused almost exclusively on home video such as Shout! Factory (“Long Way North”) and FUNimation, which picked up Makoto Shinkai’s celebrated anime “Your Name.”

So, while previous years have topped out at 20 qualifying animated features, “this year, we could have double that,” Kroyer predicts. “I think the big story here, when this category was conceived, we were worried about the minimum number we would need to trigger the award.”

And if the committee ends up evaluating that many movies — watching and ranking every one — don’t be surprised if a toon you’ve never heard of makes the cut.

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