How New Oscars Rules Could Impact Animation Nominees

Despicable Me 3 - Coco - The Breadwinner - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Aircraft Pictures

More Academy members will take part in choosing the nominees for the best animated feature Oscar under a new rule, which was announced Friday by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And the immediate reaction among Oscar watchers was that it would boost widely seen studio films at the expense of smaller indie fare, the type of films New York-based indie distributor GKIDS Films has very successfully secured nominations for in recent years.

But not so fast. Some animation insiders — including some of those behind some of the big studio movies — are not rushing to write off those smaller films. Especially those from GKIDS.

"I don’t see this rule change as dramatic, but it might be harder and more expensive for a smaller film to get attention," GKIDS founder/CEO Eric Beckman tells The Hollywood Reporter.

With its model of acquiring (and now also producing) critically acclaimed but little-seen animated films, GKIDS has emerged as a force in animation, earning a remarkable nine best animated feature Oscar nominations since 2009 — second only to Disney/Pixar. It grabbed attention in 2015 when two of its films, Cartoon Saloon’s Song of the Sea and Studio Ghibli’s The Tale of The Princess Kaguya, earned nominations, resulting in a snub of the popular hit (and, for many, the presumed frontrunnerThe Lego Movie, released by Warners.

Beckman admits that, when it comes to courting a wider range of Academy members, indie budgets just can’t compete with those of a major studio's awards campaign. But, he adds, "I'm hopeful that quality will prevail. If you look at animation as a genre, maybe the results of a little film you never heard of getting nominated is surprising. But look at live action. No one is surprised when Jurassic World doesn’t get a best picture nomination and Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea does. If you take that viewpoint, films like The Red Turtle or Princess Kaguya make a lot more sense. My hope is that this will continue with the new rule, though inevitably some smaller films probably aren't going to get the attention that they should."

As the implications of the new rule set in, some sources in the animation community pointed out that not all Academy members, though they will be invited to participate in the nominating process, will step forward and opt in. And those who do will need to put in the time to see a required majority of contenders in order to cast their nomination vote.

For some, the new rule change was a long time coming. It's believed that fewer than 200 of the Academy's 7,000 members, mostly from the animation and shorts branch, have been involved in selecting the nominees in the animated feature category. This change, allowing more to participate, brings the process closer to the way BAFTA picks its animation nominees. It also reflect's the Academy's moves to expand the voting base for other categories such as foreign-language film.

Within the animation community itself, there also are competing camps. One has quietly acknowledged it has nominated hand-drawn 2D films to keep them in the public eye. And that has provoked complaints from others in the field. How that tension will play out under the new rule may depend on how many Academy members sign up to participate in the nomination-selection process.

GKIDS hasn’t fully revealed its 2017 slate yet, but it will include My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea by cartoonist Dash Shaw, which opens April 14, and The Breadwinner, which is slated to debut in the fall and will presumably benefit from the involvement of producer Angelina Jolie. The latter is based on Deborah Ellis’ young adult novel about a girl living under the Taliban regime who cuts her hair and disguises herself as a boy in order to provide for her family after her father is imprisoned.

Those and other indie animated movies will be up against a large slate of studio films: Illumination's Despicable Me 3; Pixar's Coco and Cars 3; DreamWorks Animation's The Boss Baby and Captain Underpants; Sony Pictures Animation's Smurfs: the Lost Village, The Emoji Movie and The Star (the first three films produced under SPA president Kristine Belson); Fox/Blue Sky's Ferdinand; and, of course, Warner Animation Group's hit The Lego Batman Movie, as well as its upcoming The Lego Ninjago Movie.