The Significance of Shorts at the Oscars

Some believe the shorts categories are a disposable part of the Academy Awards. We think they deserve greater respect and recognition.
Pixar's Bao
By  · Published on March 1st, 2019

During that controversial time when the 91st Academy Awards planned to bestow some Oscars during commercial breaks, some critics proposed removing all three of the short film categories. Maybe break them off into their own ceremony, a la the Governor’s Awards, was one idea. The award for Best Live Action Short Subject was among the four that had already been cut. Few of the protests about the whole idea even mentioned that category alongside defenses of Best Cinematography, Best Editing, and Best Makeup and Hairstyling. But short films have been a part of the Oscars since their fifth year, and now is definitely not the time to let them go. Perhaps they could be revamped in some way, but not eliminated.

The reason the live-action shorts being quarantined wasn’t complained about as much may have had something to do with this year’s nominees in that category. They were a disturbing lot, and the expected and eventual winner was a pick that has been called everything from the actual worst winner of Sunday’s show to possibly the worst Oscar nominee in all of history. And the win for Skin was arguably made even worse by its acceptance speech. Either way, the Academy had an embarrassing situation on its hands. But why was the live-action short category to be sidelined and not the other two shorts categories? From what I’ve heard, the animation and documentary branches of the Academy have greater power. They also have their feature-length counterparts to typically latch onto during the ceremony.

Animated and documentary shorts also would seem to have more of an audience. The former variety of short-subject cinema has, since their introduction to the Oscars with the 1932 ceremony, been a theatrical staple. Animated shorts were part of the moviegoing experience, and even in the decades since these kinds of “cartoons” mostly left the big screen for television series, they often accompanied animated features and other family films in the theater. Even today, at least one animated short film nominee each year tends to have been viewed by millions theatrically as an attachment to some main release. This year Disney/Pixar‘s Bao, which won the Oscar, had that accessibility (via Incredibles 2). Actually, it’s usually a Disney production, though other major animation studios do it, as well. Disney’s are usually original works, however, while, say, Fox and Universal’s are mostly spinoffs from their theatrical and TV series properties.

As for the documentary shorts, they’re having a relatively unrecognized boom at the moment. Not since the beginning of the Best Documentary category in 1942, which initially could include both features and shorts (though that first year, they were all shorts) until a split was made two years later, have nonfiction short-subject films been so important. Back then, some were viewed theatrically by the public, others primarily by enlisted soldiers, and almost all of them were works of World War II propaganda. Today, short docs can be found through many online outlets, including the streaming giant Netflix, the fairly fresh endeavor Field of Vision, renegade reporter Vice, and segments of established media institutions such as the New York Times (Op-Docs), the Guardian, and the New Yorker. Not to mention HBO, where they’ve had a home for many years and now are also part of the cable channel’s internet and streaming presence.

All of this year’s nominees in the short documentary category could be found through one of those outlets ahead of the awards. Lifeboat via the New Yorker, Black Sheep via the Guardian, A Night at the Garden via Field of Vision, and End Game and Period. End of Sentence on Netflix, the latter of the two being a late add just weeks before the Oscars were held. All five contenders could be viewed as examples of doc shorts’ significance these days as substitutes for or supplements to the news and reportage of current events and trends, whether they’re covering important ongoing issues like the global refugee crisis or specific human interest stories or even contemporarily relevant histories. Doc shorts can’t just be this kind of new online journalism, however, to earn an Oscar nomination. They still have to qualify with a theatrical release or by winning a film festival award or a Student Academy Award. This year’s nominees got in by screening at and then receiving jury prizes at Sheffield, Rhode Island, Traverse City, Tribeca, and Cleveland festivals.

Of course, these days, the documentary short contenders also can be seen theatrically after they’re nominated as part of the ShortsTV (via Magnolia) distributed Oscar shorts programs. Unfortunately, the docs aren’t shown everywhere. They’re dismissed as being less appealing or in demand or something. On the ShortsTV site, I can see that in my own wide 500-mile radius, of the 106 theaters showing the shorts, only 44 of them are showing the docs. All locations save for one include the animated shorts and 102 are showing the live-action shorts. It’s no wonder — yet it’s still not right — that when all three programs are lumped together for box office accounting and reporting purposes that the docs only receive a 10-percent split of the net receipts from ticket sales versus 45-percent earned by the animated and live-action shorts categories apiece.

Of this year’s three shorts winners, Period. End of Sentence can be seen easily by millions of Netflix subscribers, Bao was seen by millions of moviegoers who saw it attached to Incredibles 2, and Skin is at least able to be rented on iTunes. While not all of the animated shorts were so widely seen, each was enough of a major property that at least one voting Academy member skipped the category in protest of especially Bao having “too much fucking money behind it,” and it’s true that the other four were made with Pixar equipment and/or by Disney animators or through relatively major outlets such as Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon and the National Film Board of Canada. But that same Oscar voter also claimed, “These are supposed to be categories to help little people break through and finally succeed.” (He also thinks Black Sheep “isn’t a documentary,” which is idiotic.) But is that true about these being breakout categories, and regardless, should the shorts awards have such a distinction?

The shorts categories certainly didn’t start out that way. The early animated and live-action nominees were produced by the likes of Walt Disney, Mack Sennett, and Hal Roach, were directed by established filmmakers and animators, and featured such stars as Laurel and Hardy and The Three Stooges. The early nominated documentaries were educational, newsreel, and propaganda films, many of them helmed by well-regarded directors, such as John Ford, though there were also notable newbies (Don Siegel, for instance) among the lot.

Over the years, it’s true that some important directors got their breaks or had early successes in film with live-action nominated shorts, including Richard Lester, Jim Henson, Taylor Hackford, Lexi Alexander, Andrea Arnold, Nacho Vigalondo, Taika Waititi, and Martin McDonagh. Some lesser-known and less-regarded filmmakers also got their starts there such as Vegas Vacation‘s Stephen Kessler and The Roommate‘s Christian E. Christiansen. Many actors made their first directorial efforts with Oscar shorts, too, such as Jeff Goldblum, Dyan Cannon, Peter Weller, JoBeth Williams, Griffin Dunne, and Peter Capaldi. But all of them were already famous figures in film, on screen. Meanwhile, already-successful directors such as Susan Seidelman, Kenneth Branagh, and Terry George have made nominated shorts at random points in their careers.

John Lasseter and Pixar, as well as Aardman‘s Nick Park and Peter Lord were recognized by the Academy in their early short pursuits. But especially since the former studio’s settled prominence, animation at the Oscars have included a lot of films by directors from such rooted companies, including Pixar. Some helming the shorts are first-time directors on their way to later handling a feature, but that breaking-out occurs through the studios regardless of their status with Academy members’ favor. As for the docs, some of the nominated filmmakers are recognized early in their careers and get a slight step up through the recognition, but there have also been a lot of returning names, most notably nine-time nominee and three-time winner Charles Guggenheim, as well as this year’s contenders Marshall Curry and Rob Epstein, who’d received multiple nominations and wins, respectively, for past feature docs they directed.

These aren’t the Student Academy Awards, which is obviously more of an introductory calling card kind of honor and a separate entity of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Winners there have included the prominent filmmakers Robert Zemeckis, Spike Lee, Cary Fukunaga, Jaco Van Dormael, Ken Kwapis, Lisa Gottlieb, Albert Magnoli, Todd Holland, Mark Herman, Lauren Lazin, Trey Parker, Bill Kopp, and future Pixar bigwigs John Lasseter (twice) and Pete Docter. More and more often, Student Academy Awards winners go on to be nominated at the main Academy Awards in the shorts categories (including Shane Acker‘s 9), which I find to be a slightly devaluing allowance, but that’s an issue for another time.

As for the idea that the shorts categories are a stepping stone. This simply isn’t true for most. This year’s three winning films will indeed mark breakthroughs for their respective winners, yet most of them are already on track for greater things. Skin‘s husband-wife director-producer team of Guy Nattiv and Jamie Ray Newman, who are already deep into their careers, debuted their feature follow-up, also titled Skin but not quite connected, at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall. And they’ve started their next project, a movie about a Holocaust survivor who comes to America and joins a cult. Bao director Domee Shi and producer Becky Neiman continue to work at Pixar, where Shi is helming her feature debut due in 2022. And Period. End of Sentence director Rayka Zehtabchi is adapting her 2016 doc short Madaran to a feature and then plans to move into dramatic film with the story of her Iranian family’s emigration to America in the 1990s. She and winning producer Melissa Berton, a high school teacher, also firstly hope the achievement leads to more menstrual pad machines like the one in their film being made and sent to India.

Shi is the winner to have the most plausible growth given her Disney-financed leap or even just a steady career given her Pixar employment. Looking back at the last 15 prior years’ shorts nominees and winners, the Pixar films among them have been the directorial debuts for eight of their 11 filmmakers, and only three of those first-timers have gone on to feature directing work, one of which was a co-directing gig through Pixar (Mark Andrews with Brave). The rest pretty much keep working on other Pixar projects. Overall, 29 animated short nominees (out of 75) marked debuts for their directors, but almost all of them were working animators at the time and most either continued primarily as animators on other projects or have only directed more shorts.

All other nominees in the animated shorts category were well into their careers working as directors of features (as notable as The Lion King, Pocahontas, and Ice Age) or shorts, including nine prior nominees, four of which were also prior winners. There’s no clear indication of any of them getting a boost from winning or being nominated, though Jeff Fowler‘s nomination (for Gopher Broke) may have contributed to his getting the gig for this year’s Sonic the Hedgehog more than a decade later, and likewise, Gary Rydstrom‘s (Pixar’s Lifted) leading to him helming Disney’s Strange Magic, Timothy Reckart‘s (Head Over Heels) to The Star, and Patrick Osborne‘s (Feast, Pearl) resulting in next year’s Nimona. Meanwhile, it’s no coincidence that longtime Disney animator Glen Keane wins an Oscar (for Dear Basketball) and now has an animated feature in the works at Netflix.

If “more of the same” is the usual effect of animated short directors being nominated, that’s an even higher probability for documentarians. Only 16 of the last 69 nominated films marked the debuts of directors, and even then a handful of those films were co-directed by experienced and in some cases previously nominated filmmakers. In this arena, instead of coming up as animators, a lot of documentarians started out as editors. Everyone else had made at least a doc short before, with 17 of them prior nominees, and of those, three prior winners.

The only certain signs of advanced careers are from Dan Krauss, a two-timer (The Life of Kevin Carter, which first won a Student Academy Award, and Extremis) now working on a dramatic remake of his 2013 feature doc The Kill Team, and Roger Ross Williams, who was noted with his win for Music by Prudence as the first African-American recipient of this Oscar and has since also been nominated in the feature category with Life Animated. We’ll likely see a lot of attention this year on The Last Truck helmers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, whose sorta sequel feature doc American Factory was the talk of the docs at Sundance 2019.

Documentarians do tend to take a long time on their films, of course, so it’s not surprising that 15 of the last 30 nominated directors (of the last 15 doc short nominees) haven’t followed up the honor with anything — yet. Four of the last five directors who won are not among those (and the one who is was the most recent), which would seem to indicate a plus for actually getting the Oscar, yet it’s also key that none of those five most recent winners were newbies anyway. Three of them were prior nominees and one of them was a prior winner.

As for the live-action nominees, the first four winners of the 15 that were honored before this year definitely went on to some success. There are the aforementioned auteurs Andrea Arnold and Martin McDonagh, plus 2004 winner Aaron Scheider (Two Soldiers), who made Get Low and the upcoming Tom Hanks vehicle Greyhound, and 2007 winner Ari Sandel (West Bank Story), who has gone on to helm The Duff and Goosebumps 2 and is currently working on Monster High. Other winning filmmakers in this category have advanced to more of the same or nothing at all or merely less successful features, as in the case of Anders Walter‘s I Kill Giants.

Nominees that didn’t win have fared less notably, though almost all directors of foreign-language shorts in this category in the past 15 years have seemed to get or continue to get regular work back home. Exceptions for American filmmakers and English-language films include 2009 nominee Daniel Barber (The Tonto Woman) with Harry Brown and The Keeping Room, 2013 nominee Bryan Buckley (Asad) with Sundance sensation The Bronze, 2014 nominee Mark Gill (The Voorman Problem) with the Morrissey biopic England is Mine, and 2016 nominee Patrick Vollrath (Everything Will Be Okay) with the upcoming Joseph Gordon-Levitt plane-hijacking movie 7500.

Only 16 of the live-action nominees were directorial debuts, but some of those were by former actors or other film workers, and four of them only ever helmed that one thing. Twelve of the non-winning nominees who had worked before haven’t had any directorial credits since, either, while three winners are in the same boat, including The Shore‘s Terry George, previously a well-established filmmaker. However, another of those three, The Phone Call‘s Mat Kirby, has been in the news with projects in development. The other is 2018 winner Chris Overton (The Silent Child), who probably has something cooking but he’s too new an honoree to tell.

Fortunately, all these shorts filmmakers are reeling in the cash from the distribution of their work thanks to all their accolades, right? Well, it’s good that the nominees do now earn some money from the theatrical programs, which keep increasing in grosses year to year (the 2019 crop is currently at $3.2 million). And ShortsTV also brings in some profit via their VOD run. After that, though, there are all kinds of possibilities, good and bad, for where these films wind up. We can count on a lot of doc shorts nowadays being on Netflix or another of the aforementioned online platforms, and all the Disney and Pixar and Fox shorts can be found on DVD and for purchase digitally. Thank goodness for the web in general for most shorts access, and special gratitude goes out to the rising number found on the free service Kanopy.

Here’s a breakdown of how many films of each category is available and where:

Best Documentary Short nominees 2004-2019 (69 titles)
Digital reantal/purchase (iTunes, Amazon, etc.): 17
Netflix: 5
Amazon Prime: 3
HBO: 8
Fandor: 2
Kanopy: 6
New York Times Op-Doc: 2
New Yorker: 3
Hoopla: 1
Tubi: 1
YouTube/Vimeo/Dailymotion/etc. (officially free): 7
YouTube/Vimeo/Dailymotion/etc. (unofficial or unconfirmed as legit): 15
Totally unavailable (that we could find): 21

Best Animated Short nominees 2004-2019 (75 titles)
Digital rental/purchase (iTunes, Amazon, etc.): 32
Netflix: 1
Amazon Prime: 5
Fandor: 3
Kanopy: 5
New Yorker: 1
YouTube/Vimeo/Dailymotion/etc. (officially free): 15
YouTube/Vimeo/Dailymotion/etc. (unofficial or unconfirmed as legit): 43
Totally unavailable (that we could find): 4

Best Live Action Short nominees 2004-2019 (75 titles)
Digital rental/purchase (iTunes, Amazon, etc.): 22
DVD compilation: 6
Amazon Prime: 7
Fandor: 8
Kanopy: 10
New Yorker: 2
YouTube/Vimeo/Dailymotion/etc. (officially free): 18
YouTube/Vimeo/Dailymotion/etc. (unofficial or unconfirmed as legit): 21
Totally unavailable (that we could find): 7

Obviously, the distribution of short films could be better, particularly for Oscar nominees and winners. Even though the numbers of totally unavailable titles aren’t that high, there’s also the matter of all the unofficial copies streaming on sites like YouTube and Vimeo that are an issue. These tend to be low-quality uploads. A good percent of the official uploads and postings on these sites directly from their directors are not that much better quality, either. The best you’re going to get is with the low number of titles for rent and purchase and the minimal amount available at subscription-based outlets.

It’s worth noting that Amazon Prime seems to be getting more into the shorts game, but surprisingly neither HBO nor Netflix (which is really becoming the new HBO in many ways) put out their share of short documentaries but not short animated or live-action works. I’ve long wondered why Netflix and even Prime and Hulu don’t pick up fiction shorts. I also will never understand why so many of HBO’s docs, including the shorts, aren’t available on their streaming platforms. Netflix Originals don’t ever expire, so why do HBO Originals? Most of the HBO productions before 2012 are not on HBO GO, with The Last Truck being an exception probably because of the upcoming release of American Factory. And one nominee since 2012 is missing.

Netflix subscribers watch documentary shorts. They’d watch animated and live-action shorts. In the age of online streaming, audiences aren’t picky about runtimes. Fandor has had them mixed in with the rest of their library quite well, but Fandor is going away. Most of the streaming services that are coming up are studio based and, outside of Disney+ likely including Walt Disney Animation and Pixar shorts, there’s not going to be much in the way of short-subject films to be found in these places. Kanopy stepping up with hosting shorts is great (they’re already showing this year’s animation nominees One Small Step and Weekends), though not a lot people know about Kanopy yet.

If there are enough Academy members to care that the Oscars continue honoring shorts, they should extend that honor to them being seen. Get rid of the stigma as well as the reputation that these are the equivalent of student films and test reels. Look through the nominees and winners of the last decade and a half and you’ll see that many filmmakers appear to be lifers when it comes to shorts cinema. The Academy and the industry and the public need to recognize that. And the reverse works, too, that if more shorts are out there for the public, those awards categories won’t be looked at with such blank stares by telecast viewers, including many diehard film fans. Or ever thought to be a disposable lot again.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.