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Oscar Shorts: Where Have All the Americans Gone?

All of this year's Oscar-nominated live action short films happen to be from Europe

The Oscars often feel like an insider’s game: in any given year the nominee list is packed with familiar names. But the live-action short film category is often an exception, comprising unknowns from outside the Hollywood hothouse.

That’s particularly true this year. While U.S.-made or co-produced projects traditionally make at least some showing in the category, they were shut out in 2013.

That left the field open to France, the U.K., Spain, Denmark and Finland. So what led to the U.S. shutout?

Easy answer: Voters just didn’t find any American-made films worth including. The more complex answer: foreign-made films are often heavily subsidized.

“Avant que de tout perdre” (Just Before Losing Everything), the suspenseful French entry in which a woman and her children try to escape an abusive husband, cost around $190,000 and was financed by Canal Plus and the French Center for Cinema, say director Xavier Legrand and producer Alexandre Gavras. “A subsidies system allows for more equal access to filmmaking based on your talent more than your wealth,” add the filmmakers.

But even if subsidies aren’t large, they’re indicative of a country’s priorities. Spain may be sagging under a depressed economy but still finds room to help keep short filmmakers afloat. “Aquel no era yo” (That Wasn’t Me), about aid workers in Africa, received “very tiny” subsides, says director Esteban Crespo.

Selma Vilhunen, who wrote and helmed “Pitaako mun kaikki hoitaa?” (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? – pictured above), about a family having a crazy morning as they prepare for a wedding, says her country’s Finnish Film Foundation helped. But she adds that “in Europe there’s a long tradition of beautiful animation and short films.” The perception, says Crespo, is “if Americans make short films, they make them as stepping stones for something else.”

Short films made not as resume-builders but as pieces of standalone art may be the key to attracting Oscar nominations, but it’s a notion that’s growing increasingly quaint.

“We use the shorts as training grounds or schools, so if we find a talent we want to work with we have them make a couple of short films to see how it goes,” says Kim Magnusson, a producer whose Danish-made “Helium” is about a terminally ill boy whose final weeks are enhanced by a hospital worker who tells him about a heavenly place. “It’s a way to make a movie without having the pressure on your shoulders of something commercial.”

Using shorts to propel your career is not necessarily a bad thing, says Mark Gill, whose dark, quirky “The Voorman Problem” (U.K.) features Martin Freeman as a psychiatrist matching wits with a mental patient.

“We do have a lot of debate about the short-form format, and what its value is to audiences and filmmakers,” he says, noting he has no interest in making a longer version of “Voorman.” “People do make shorts more and more as a trailer for the kind of film they want to make, but I don’t think that’s wrong.”

Better subsidies and a tradition of turning shorts into art may, at least for now, be helping get foreign filmmakers the attention they want. That, coupled with a weakened euro may be what’s creating a shorts renaissance — since, as Crespo says, “Directors cannot step up to features, so they get better at making short movies.”

He’s one of them. And as soon as he’s able, Crespo says he’ll be moving on. “I’ve already done six short movies. I want to do a feature. I don’t mind if it’s in Spain or in the U.S. Wherever they let me work and appreciate my work.”

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