Studio News from John, Part 15 - Oscar Rules are Meant to be Broken!

PART 1 - New Rules for 2019 and Beyond

There have been a few recent news stories about changes being made to the Academy Awards - something about a "Best Popular Film" category, which sounds like it needs something else to distinguish it from "Best Picture", in my opinion.  Isn't the film that receives the most votes for Best Picture therefore also the "most popular"?  It got the MOST VOTES, after all!  Or is this award going to reward the film with the highest box office, because if you ask me, that blockbuster, whatever it is, has probably been fairly well rewarded already.  So I'm not sure I understand yet where the Academy is going when it's trying to make a distinction between "Best" and "Best Popular", unless perhaps "Best" rewards the creative process and "Best Popular" rewards the connection made with the fans, but even this sounds like a problem, because it's sort of admitting the majority of movie fans aren't knowledgeable enough to spend their money on whatever "Best" really means.  

Then there's the other issue raised when the Academy announced it would be relegating some of the lesser awards to a presentation that would take place before the TV cameras started rolling, or perhaps during commercial breaks.  So, if you've enjoyed seeing who wins the Oscar for Best Animated Short, it's possible that in the future, you'll have to read about it in the news the next day and you'll no longer see that award given out during the televised ceremony.  As someone working in the animation industry, and as someone who occasionally has a vested interest in which film wins the Animation Oscars, I strongly oppose this plan, to relegate animation to the same status as the craft awards, such as visual effects and sound mixing, which are given out now on a different DAY, but hey, at least those nominees get a lunch out of the deal, and a visit from a sacrificial hot actress. 

Now, my personal suggestion would be that if the time allotted to giving out the awards on TV is no longer sufficient, there are other methods of creating more time.  They could cut, for example, the detailed explanation of "Film Editing for Dummies", because we all know by now what editing is, so there's no need to over-explain it, or some of the vapid dialogue that passes for "jokes" spoken by the presenters.  Or there's usually some interminably long montage that's suppose to pass as a "Look at Music in the Movies" from 1920-2018, with many more clips used than the number necessary to prove a point.  We get it already, the movies have music in them!

Other solutions are also possible - start the award telecast earlier, for example.  What's wrong with 7 pm E.S.T., who says that the show has to start at 8 pm?  I realize it's a ratings game, but come on, let's make an exception for these important awards.  Or instead of a "Red Carpet Arrival Special", which serves no purpose other than as a long-format advertisement for various fashion designers, try giving out the awards right away.  Let the E! channel run all the red carpet footage they want, they're going to do that anyway, right?  ABC should start the show at 7 pm and give out the first award (and it can be for animation, or visual effects) no later than 7:05.  Oh, yeah, I think we should dramatically cut the host's opening monologue too, if it will get more of the award presentations broadcast on television.  

Anyone who thinks that the Oscar telecast should be ONLY three hours long (which seems rather arbitrary, all things considered, plus it always runs longer anyway) could then just tune in at 8 pm and catch the major categories they don't want to miss.  I mean, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Picture, you know they're going to save those for the end.  Maybe they can hand out Best Supporting Actor and Actress at 8:05 or 8:10 this way.  And the hour between 7 pm and 8 pm would then be devoted to things like visual effects and sound mixing and, OK, Best Animated Short, so those would no longer slow things down in prime time.  See?  Problem solved, just cut the red carpet crap and start the whole program an hour earlier.  You're welcome.  

The reason that I've spent so much time over the past two decades studying the Oscars is that I've been through their submission process almost annually.  I'm always working for someone who has an animated short or feature that they want to qualify for a nomination.  After all, a film can't win an award without a nomination - but most people don't realize that a film also can't get a nomination unless it first qualifies.  And there are many ways to DISqualify a film, and only one way to qualify it.  On top of that, each year there are slight changes to the rules for eligibility, so I have to keep an eye on them every year, figure out what the changes are, and then make sure that all of the traps get avoided. 

There are even other reasons to qualify a film, beyond the possibility of getting an Oscar nomination and then maybe a statue.  In the animated feature category, for example, the number of nominations given out depends on the number of eligible films, so even if you represent an animated that has ZERO CHANCE, creatively speaking, of winning an Oscar, and I don't mean to be cruel here, but pick your favorite terrible kids movie, like "The Emoji Movie" or "Norm of the North" - if you make that film Oscar-eligible, it could be a big help to the animated feature community at large, because it could tip the scales and make five nomination slots available that year, instead of three.  At least that would be good karma, if you're the director of a terrible film, maybe you'd sleep better at night or something.  

But the best reason to make sure your film is Oscar-eligible is still the possibility of getting a nomination.  Signe's last feature "Rocks in My Pockets" didn't get a nomination in the Best Animated Feature category, but it was eligible.  So following all the rules and submitting paperwork to the Academy helped insure that in the Oscars given out in 2015 (for the films released in 2014) there were five nominations instead of three.  "Rocks in My Pockets" was also chosen to represent Latvia in the Best Foreign Language Film category, so there was also a chance that it could have received a nomination there.  It didn't, but it COULD have, and that's almost as good.  

And so we're taking steps now to make sure that "My Love Affair With Marriage" will qualify for the Academy Awards in either 2020 or 2021.  Yes, believe it or not, that work has to start now, especially where the Academy's rules are concerned.  If I've learned one thing over the years by submitting applications for qualification, it's that the preparations have to start well in advance, like during production of the film, and that waiting until a month before the submission is much too late. 

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PART 2 - Tips for filmmakers on how to follow the rules (and maybe bend them a bit...)

The Academy has a lot of rules and regulations, and it's better when submitting any film to be aware of as many of them as possible.  The rules define what length a film has to be for consideration as a feature film instead of a short, for example.  Anything over 40 minutes is a feature, for their purposes, and anything under is a short. (Which sort of suggests the question about which category a 40-minute film would be able to qualify in...)  There are also rules about what constitutes an animated feature, or in the case of an animation/live-action mix, the film has to contain over a certain percentage of animation in order to qualify in that category. 

Another important rule is that the film has to be released, not necessarily nationwide, but at the very least it has to be exhibited publicly at a real theater within L.A. County, for at least 7 days, with at least three showings a day.  And along with the submission form, the Academy now requires proof of this screening, which used to be just a letter from the manager of the theater, but now they also require a copy of the theater's billing block, which is what gets sent to the local newspapers to announce the screenings to the public.  This means that over the years, some people probably tried to either forge letters from the theater, or tried to screen a film without telling the public about it.  

What's weird now is that for short films, the Academy now requires that they be advertised in the newspapers, just like feature films are.  For many years I've been able to help animated shorts get qualified by calling up certain theaters in L.A., and asking them if they'd be willing to screen a short before one of their features for a week.  99% of the time their answer would be a resounding "NO", but once in a while I could find some helpful theater manager, or one that might charge $50 or $100 for his trouble, but that's just the sort of entrepreneurial spirit I admire.  This sometimes led to odd pairings, like I remember that we screened a film called "Nosehair" in front of the James Bond film "Goldeneye".  And I remember one time where we paid a theater $50 to screen a short before a feature, but it went over so well, they sent the check back.  

Back then, all we really needed to submit to the Academy as proof was a letter from the theater manager to say that this screening took place, but now the Academy requires that the short film appears in the newspaper billing, right along with the name of the feature.  This is very easy for Disney or Dreamworks to arrange, especially if their short film is screening with one of their own features, like the way they screened "Bao" with "The Incredibles 2".  It's much harder at the independent level to get a short film both screened AND advertised.  Plus, who goes to the movie theater to see a short film?  I don't see why this requirement exists, because it's highly unlikely that anyone would read the newspaper to find out where a film like "Mission: Impossible" is playing, and then suddenly change their mind based on the fact that a short film is playing before another feature, like "Christopher Robin".  

In conjunction with the Academy's rules, the film also has to be kept off the internet before the L.A. screenings start - the rules do allow for festival screenings before the theatrical run, but nothing streaming on Netflix or airing on cable, or posted on YouTube or Vimeo or any other web-sites.  Many films these days are produced by Netflix or Amazon or even premium cable TV stations, so this is a rule that may change over the next few years, but right now everyone still has to follow this to the letter. Even a film made by Amazon can't be played on their web-site until after it screens in an L.A. theater for a week, or it won't be eligible. 

Back in the day, we used to have to ship a physical copy of the film, on 35mm no less.  This was because there was a small, select group of people who watched all of the animated features and decided which ones deserved to qualify.  The rumors were that these screenings took place at Tom Hanks' house, but I don't know for sure if that's true.  Anyway, the best thing about the new digital age of filmmaking is that we don't have to ship a big, heavy 35mm print of an animated feature out to Los Angeles for the Animated Feature Committee to view.  Once in a while, I might get lucky with the timing, and there would already be a 35mm copy in L.A., like maybe I could have the print that screened in the L.A. theater sent over to the Academy in Beverly Hills, and getting it shipped across town is much easier to arrange than getting it shipped across the country.  

These days, the submissions (and the screenings) are done with DCP's, which are hard drives that contain digital copies of feature films in HD formats.  Shipping a small hard drive from place to place, like from NY to LA, is much easier and cheaper.  (However, smaller hard drives are more likely to get lost...)  But now there are more rules about making and sending the DCPs that need to be followed.  For example, a DCP can have up to 7 channels of sound, and the minimum necessary for Academy submission is 3 channels, though they prefer 5.  A couple of times, I've been asked to submit animated shorts for qualification, but the filmmaker was still using basic stereo sound, which is only TWO channels.  What to do?  Well, a couple of times we shipped a stereo-mixed film to a company in L.A. that makes DCPs, and asked them to make a new DCP with 3 channels of sound, only the center one of them would be BLANK!  It was a quick fix done at the last minute, and I got the film qualified, though I admit this was a bit of a sneaky trick. 

(To be completely honest, this trick solved a problem, but also possibly violated a basic Academy rule, which states that the copy submitted for qualification must be exactly the same as the version that screened in the L.A. theater.  In this case, the copy that screened in the theater had 2-channel stereo sound, but the copy sent to the Academy had 3-channel sound.  But since one of the three channels was BLANK, in my opinion, the two versions of the film were the same.  That allows me to sleep soundly at night, anyway.)  

For "My Love Affair With Marriage", since Signe is already aware of the Academy's rules about sound, that makes my job a bit easier.  The sound mix for her film is already done, and it's already been made in 5-channel sound.  So when the time comes, all we'll need to do is to make a DCP with this mix, and we should be fine where the Academy's rules are concerned.  Unless, of course, the rules change between now and 2021, or any new technology forces new requirements to be met. 

There are a number of different deadlines to be aware of, also.  There's the date that everything has to be received at the Academy - the form, the film, and all the paperwork - which is usually October 31.  But before that, the Academy has to receive an OSF (Oscars Submission Form) and a complete version of the film's on-screen credits within 60 days of the end of the film's run at a commercial theater in Los Angeles County. This means that if you screen your film in L.A. in January, let's say, you have to do some of your Oscar paperwork in March, when the main deadline is in late October.  Who the heck is thinking about the Oscar submissions in February?  That's when the award ceremony for the PREVIOUS year is held, but if you're a filmmaker, you have to be thinking ahead here.  And if you screen in January and you forget to fill out the paperwork in February, that's it - you can't change your mind or suddenly remember to do this in September and still qualify.  This is probably why most studios release their best movies late in the year, because when they released good movies in January, somebody kept forgetting to fill out the Academy paperwork until it was too late. 

Finally, there's a new rule about submitting a digital copy of the film, along with 300 DVD copies to the Academy - Hmm, I've never seen that one before.  I bet those will be sent out to the voting members of the Animated Feature branch, for voting purposes.  Those DVDs have to be in paper sleeves with no artwork or contact information on them.  Wow, that's a lot of work, making 300 DVDs.  Or even if you hire a company to make those, that's an extra expense in order to qualify your film.  Sure, for a big company like Disney or Dreamworks, that cost is considered minimal compared to all their other production costs, but at the independent level, that's a big unexpected expense.  And it's a write-off, you can't sell those DVDs for a profit, or do anything with them to get that money back.  

Let's say you follow all of the Academy rules to the letter, and you manage to make your film Oscar-eligible.  That's great, but then you're only halfway there.  There's no guarantee the film will get nominated, but as I said before, it's got to be qualified in order to stand a chance of getting a nomination.  In the case of animated shorts, the Academy hosts branch screenings in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco for all the eligible shorts.  Any members that vote in this category can attend one of the branch screenings, watch all of the eligible films at once, and then vote for their favorites, which ideally narrows the list of Oscar-worthy shorts down to a list of then, which is known as the "Short List".  From this list, another round of voting picks the five shorts that get nominations.  

Ultimately, it's a long, complicated process that can be difficult for filmmakers to undertake, especially when new rules and requirements pop up that didn't exist before. The best we can do is pay attention each year and review the rules to see if anything is different, and then adjust our plans accordingly.  OK, so maybe I've never broken an Academy submission rule, but I've probably bent a few of them here and there.