Oscar’s cartoon tussle

More animated films than ever vying for awards

This year’s glut of animated films made for some nasty B.O. jostling, as pics from stalwarts Pixar and DreamWorks slugged it out with a raft of hopefuls from other studios and animation upstarts.

Now, the battle is on to round two, as more toons than ever are vying for this year’s Oscar in feature animation and, for the first time, a new Golden Globe award.

Since the Oscar nod for toons was first awarded in 2002, Pixar and DreamWorks have largely dominated. But the sharp spike in animated films released in 2006 means that 16 pics are eligible for Oscar consideration (for five slots) this year, compared to 10 last year and 11 in 2004.

Those pics include Sony’s “Open Season” and “Monster House”; Warner Bros.’ “Happy Feet”; Fox’s “Ice Age: The Meltdown”; Pixar-Disney’s “Cars”; and DreamWorks’ “Over the Hedge” and “Flushed Away.”

Studios are campaigning more aggressively than ever, and not just in the toon category. The screener for “Happy Feet” lists 11 categories in which to be considered, including animated feature, picture, director, screenplay and original song. “Cars” calendars were bundled in issues of Variety and the Los Angeles Times, seeking consideration in nine categories.

But why all the fuss? With live-action films, a win in a key race can lead to a bump in box office. Kudos attention could also help fourth-quarter bows such as “Happy Feet” and “Flushed Away.” But, potentially even bigger than B.O. is the fact that Oscar attention could boost DVD and other ancillaries.

“It can mean a lot for (the studios) with DVD sales, and it can help a film’s overseas release,” says Sarah Baisley, editor-in-chief of Animation World Network.

An Oscar also can mean free publicity for a DVD launch and add value when pics are sold to TV and cable nets.

A key stop for any contender is the Annie Awards, bestowed by the Intl. Animated Film Society.

Since animated films gained their own Oscar category, the Annies have reliably served as a prognosticator for which films will both be nominated and win come February. This year’s Annie noms, announced in early December, put Pixar-Disney’s “Cars” at the top of the heap, with noms for picture and director John Lasseter.

The studios are acutely aware of the Annies’ influence, and court voting members as assiduously as they do Academy members, offering them screeners and special screenings.

One awards consultant says when he was working on a campaign for an animated film, “One of my mad obsessions was getting nominated for an Annie. That’s part of the campaign. You need to get the animation community sort of obsessed with your movie.

“If they like something, they really, really like something, and all those people talk.”

Studios also encourage their employees to become members of the ASIFA and, by extension, to vote. Since the animated feature Oscar was inaugurated in 2002, ASIFA membership has more than doubled to over 3,800 members, 95% of whom are affiliated with studios. (ASIFA is a welcoming org: Would-be members need only fork over $75 and be “interested in animation.” According to the ASIFA Website, “No American has ever been rejected for membership in ASIFA.”)

As far as wooing Academy members, studios tend to take a narrow approach because of the specialized voting. Oscar nominations for animated categories are determined by a committee of about 100 people.

Once noms are announced, all 5,800 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences can vote on the toon winner, but some campaigners doubt if all those people actually vote in this race.

“You’re almost certainly swimming upstream because a lot of members of the Academy don’t want to watch certain kinds of films, animated being one,” says one Oscar consultant. “So your pool from which to draw is much smaller.”

But as the competition among toons heats up, look for the studios to put more muscle into their machinations. Each hopes to make their cartoon critters or cars the top draw come Feb. 25.