Can Kobe Bryant Follow His Retirement Ceremony With an Oscar Nomination?

THR's awards columnist looks at the winds that are propelling — and blowing against — the nomination prospects of the Laker great's shortlisted short about his career.
Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
'Dear Basketball'

Kobe Bryant had not one but two of his Los Angeles Laker jersey numbers retired by the team during an emotional halftime ceremony at Staples Center on Monday night. He may be the recipient of a comparably special honor little more than a month from now, on Jan. 23, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces its nominees for the 90th Oscars.

Bryant, as the writer of Dear Basketball — an animated short derived from his retirement poem of the same name, drawn by Disney legend Glen Keane and scored by the incomparable John Williams — would personally receive an Oscar nomination if his film, which was screened on the Jumbotron prior to Monday night's retirement ceremony, is nominated for best animated short.

Dear Basketball has already made the Oscar shortlist of 10 animated shorts from which five nominees will be chosen. Now, can it advance to the next round? In my opinion, it has a 50/50 shot — but will be a, well, slam-dunk to win if it gets one. Here's why...

Oscar nominations in the animated short category are determined by the members of the Academy's short film and feature animation branch, a group of roughly 500 people who work in those fields. It's a group that is not generally welcoming of outsiders; Bryant is a lifelong student of animation and is organizing a program to enable diverse communities to study animation, but he's new to the professional animation community. But it's also a group that cherishes longtime practitioners of its profession, like 38-year Disney vet Keane. Keane has never been Oscar-nominated before, primarily because directors, not animators, are recognized for animated features. (Animated features on which he worked have been nominated for and won many Oscars.) But, as the director of Dear Basketball, he would share in the nom with Bryant.

Another wild card, though, is the involvement with Dear Basketball of Verizon. The short was entirely financed by Bryant's Granity Studios and Believe Entertainment Group, long before Verizon had anything to do with it, but, in an effort to get it out to as many people as possible, Bryant last week agreed to a distribution deal with go90, the telecommunications company's free, ad-supported video streaming service that was launched in October 2015 and now reaches roughly as many people as Facebook or Google. One might think that animators would applaud a partnership like this that brings animated shorts to many members of the general public, but there is reason to believe that some have an aversion to shorts affiliated with corporations (with the exception of Pixar). It's even suspected by some that this had something to do with why Duet, an animated short that Keane made in 2014, was shortlisted but not ultimately nominated.

The difference, though, is that Google ATAP (Google's Advanced Technology and Projects group) was a co-producer of Duet, meaning it was involved with it from the start, whereas go90 only became involved with Dear Basketball after it was already made.

If Dear Basketball does, in fact, get nominated, then I think it will win the Oscar in a walk. That's not only because it's a beautiful film, but because of the way in which winners are selected. Under the Academy's arcane voting rules, best animated short Oscar nominees are chosen only by people with expertise in shorts and/or animation — again, the short films and feature animation branch — but all Academy members (the other 93 percent), most of whom know little to nothing about shorts and/or animation, then get to weigh in on the winner. A sizable number of members who turn in ballots don't bother to watch the nominated shorts; of those people, many abstain from voting in the category, while others vote for the one they've seen or heard the most about.

Bryant is a hometown hero in the place that is home to at least a plurality, and perhaps a clear majority, of Academy members. Per Academy policy, his name wouldn't be on the ballot — just the name of his film — but fortunately, for him, the name of his film would instantly remind many voters that it's his.

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