For most awards season enthusiasts, the short film categories — live action, animated and documentary — are little more than the ringers that trip up the annual Oscar pool. Since virtually no one gets to see the nominees, it’s anyone’s guess as to who will win.

But as far as the Academy is concerned, the shorts format is the incubator for future talent and techniques, and the org is committed to getting them in front of audiences.

“We’ve been working hard at the Academy to act as a catalyst to promote the distribution of the shorts to get them out there, and we’re starting to get some traction,” says Jon Bloom, who chairs the executive committee for the Academy’s short films and feature animation branch.

That means partnering with Shorts Intl. to get the nominees into theaters, onto iTunes and eventually even on television before Oscar night. Though the Academy has no financial stake in licensing the shorts to a distributor, Bloom sees getting the work in front of audiences almost as a moral imperative.

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“In years past, it’s been a shame — and I’m a previous nominee myself (for the nearly-impossible-to-see “Overnight Sensation”) — to have this extraordinary work dry on the vine,” Bloom says.

Consider three shorts that enjoyed the rare luxury of widespread theatrical release this year:

  • Wes Anderson used “Hotel Chevalier,” which was later attached to prints of the director’s “The Darjeeling Limited,” to acquaint himself with Jason Schwartzman’s character while writing the feature.

  • Disney’s retro-styled “How to Set Up Your Home Theater” (which unspooled before “National Treasure 2”) was more than just a throwback to old Goofy instructional toons; it also served as a dry run for an animation department preparing its return to traditional hand-drawn animation.

  • Alien-abduction toon “Lifted” (attached to “Ratatouille”) marks the directorial debut of Gary Rydstrom, who was so taken with Pixar’s work that he put aside his career as an Oscar-winning sound designer to learn animation. Short was nominated for an Oscar last year, and don’t be surprised to see a feature in his future.

Sight unseen

Without big-studio backing, shorts are typically relegated to film festivals, omnibus programs (where like-themed shorts, such as gay stories, are combined into a feature-length package) or specialty DVD releases.

The Oscar angle was just the hook that convinced Magnolia Pictures acquisitions topper Tom Quinn that booking the shorts in the live-action and animated categories could prove commercially viable.

“With two awards guaranteed, I have better odds than everybody else in the marketplace,” Quinn says. But it’s not an easy program to assemble. “Because these films are chosen for you, we’re out chasing product that we don’t own — or even know what it is — three months out.”

In the foreign-language and documentary feature categories, the Academy announces a shortlist, which can clue distributors into which pics stand a chance at nomination. Not so with the shorts categories. That’s where Carter Pilcher of Shorts Intl. comes in, since the company specializes in shorts (feeding them to iTunes and European TV outlets on a monthly basis) and has relationships with many of the filmmakers.

Such alliances can also come in handy down the road for a company like Magnolia. Quinn partnered with director Sean Ellis in 2006 after his short “Cashback” was nominated for an Oscar. When he finished a feature-length version a year later, Magnolia made the deal for domestic rights.

Long haul

Because many shorts filmmakers — particularly those who’ve been nominated for or won Oscars in the past — go on to tackle features, audiences have insights beyond immediate Oscar handicapping to gain from investigating their work.

“The shorts have always been the classic proving ground for new techniques, so when somebody’s trying something new and different, they’re likely to try it as a short first — whether that’s a new CGI technique to make fur or water look more natural, or some groundbreaking technique like color or sound or 3-D,” says Bloom.

Andrea Arnold, who won an Oscar for “Wasp” in 2005, earned the jury prize in Cannes a year later for her debut feature “Red Road.” And 2006 live-action short winner “Six Shooter” gave Martin McDonagh the chance to make “In Bruges,” which premieres in Sundance later this month.

It’s true of documentaries and toons, too. Steven Okazaki’s “White Light/Black Rain,” recently shortlisted in the documentary feature category, marks an expansion of his Oscar-nominated short “The Mushroom Club.” And Blue Sky Studios, Aardman Animations and Pixar all started out winning shortform Oscars.

Who wouldn’t want to be the first to discover their work?