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It’s a golden age for animated film. A new Oscar rule could end it.

The Academy just tilted the playing field in favor of The Emoji Movie — and against indie animation.

A still from the film Loving Vincent
A still from the film Loving Vincent.
BreakThru Films/Trademark Films

Take a look at the highest-grossing animated films of any given year and you’re guaranteed to find big-budget CGI features like Coco, The Boss Baby, and Despicable Me 3 at the top of the list. But even though the major Hollywood studios might rule the box office, each year the Oscar nominations go some ways toward balancing the scales by highlighting a diverse array of animation styles from around the world.

In 2017, for instance, alongside megahits like Zootopia and Moana, voters nominated My Life as a Zucchini, a candid and melancholic Swiss comedy set in an orphanage, which grossed all of $307,766 in the US; and The Red Turtle, a striking and silent high-concept love story directed by Michael Dudok de Wit, of the Netherlands, for Japan’s legendary Studio Ghibli.

Similarly, in 2016 the chart-topping Inside Out was joined by the wistful, nostalgic anime When Marnie Was There and Anomalisa, an artfully misanthropic oddity from indie auteur Charlie Kaufman (the writer behind Being John Malkovich and Adaptation).

Thanks to such nominations, past Oscar ceremonies have drawn attention to worthy films seen by few as well as the giant blockbusters. But that could be about to change.

Traditionally, the nominations in each Oscar category are decided on by members of the Academy’s specialist “branches”; screenplay nominations are selected by the writers branch, acting nominations by the actors branch, and so on. Then the entire membership — which can include everyone from actors to songwriters to makeup artists — votes for the eventual winner.

The sole exception is the Best Picture prize, for which the whole Academy gets to help pick the contenders. That makes sense, because all members have a stake in which films are put forth as the industry’s most exemplary. But this year, as the result of a controversial rule change, voting for the Best Animated Feature nominations will also be opened up to any member who wishes to participate.

This could mean a significant shift in focus for a category with a history of reaching outside the Hollywood studio system for its nominees, and one that plays a big part in raising the profile of foreign, independent, and stylistically diverse animation.

The Oscars have supported indie animation for 15 years

The Animated Feature Oscar was launched in 2002, as new studios like Pixar and DreamWorks emerged to challenge Disney’s virtual monopoly on mainstream US animation, allowing for a more competitive category. In the first decade after its inception, the category was ruled by big-budget Hollywood studio fare, with deserving winners like The Incredibles and Finding Nemo sitting alongside mainstream nominees that had received mediocre reviews, such as Shark Tale and Brother Bear.

Outside of a win for Hayao Miyazaki’s seminal anime Spirited Away in 2003, and a small handful foreign and independent nominees, the major studios had the category on lock. This also made for a lack of stylistic diversity, with Disney’s brand of hand-drawn realism and Pixar-esque CGI dominating the field.

As the number of animators in the Academy steadily grew — and with it, the number of animators from outside the major studio system — more diverse films began to creep into the category. Then the floodgates opened. Since 2010, 13 of 33 nominees have been either foreign, independent, or both. In that same period, only 15 nominees have been CGI. Other styles represented range from the exquisite watercolors of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2014) to the psychedelic stick figures of Boy and the World (2015) and the childlike puppet work of My Life as a Zucchini (2016).

This isn’t to say that indie animation has taken over the category completely. The final vote is opened up to the whole Academy, not just animators, and so the winner is almost invariably a CGI blockbuster, with Disney/Pixar alone winning nine of the past 10 awards.

“The nominations have done a tremendous job in raising the profile of indie animation,” says Dave Jesteadt, the president of GKIDS, America’s most prominent distributor of foreign and independent animation (with nine nominations to its name). “This is the idea we have been pushing for a decade now — that animated films do not need to look alike, or be similar broad family-targeting comedies.”

The Triplets of Belleville (2003), Persepolis (2007), The Illusionist (2010), The Wind Rises (2013), and others were all shown on significantly more screens following their nominations, broadening their potential audiences — and grosses — and underscoring the importance of Oscar nominations for this type of film. The Wind Rises, for example, a Miyazaki passion project recounting the life of a World War II aircraft designer, expanded from 21 screens to 496 in the week of the ceremony, and more than quadrupled the previous week’s box office take.

Such films also see big spikes in online searches for their names around the nominations and awards, further proof that a win isn’t always necessary to bring an indie film to the public’s attention.

An Oscar boost can also help indie animators fund future projects. Jesteadt points to GKIDS’ partner Cartoon Saloon, the studio behind past nominees The Secret of Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014), as well as this year’s hopeful The Breadwinner, a stunning contemporary fable about a young girl in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Oscar nominations mean these studios “have been able to tell even more ambitious stories,” he says.

But now, the Academy’s new rule changes could spell trouble for Cartoon Saloon and other vibrant studios.

Revenge of The Lego Movie

The Red Turtle
A scene from The Red Turtle (2017).
Sony Pictures Classics

The Academy announced that change in April. The reasoning behind the decision wasn’t specified, although it appears the Academy is frustrated precisely by the eclecticism that excites animation devotees. “The [nominating] committees have been under increasing criticism in recent years for shunning films like The Lego Movie and showing a marked preference for hand-drawn or stop-motion films over CG movies,” notes the Wrap.

Indeed, The Lego Movie, though a critical and commercial hit, failed to get a nomination in 2015; the selections that year were indie underdogs Song of the Sea and Princess Kaguya, alongside blockbusters like Disney’s Big Hero 6 and DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon 2. Even Pixar, the category’s undisputed champion, has missed out on nods for films that dip slightly below its own high standards: Monsters University, The Good Dinosaur, and Finding Dory were all overlooked in years in which there were strong indie contenders.

If discrimination against big-budget crowd pleasers is a problem, the rule change certainly has the potential to solve it. Not only does the broader membership routinely hand the Animated Feature prize to Disney/Pixar but voters from outside of the specialist branch can be shockingly ignorant and aloof when it comes to animation.

In the Hollywood Reporter’s annual series of interviews with anonymous Oscar voters, the Animated Feature category is frequently met with either complete lack of interest or a vote for whatever the voters’ children liked (“The kids watched [Big Hero 6] three times — what does that tell you?”).

In 2015, one member of the sound branch of the Academy memorably expressed open disdain for “these two obscure freakin’ Chinese fuckin’ things that nobody ever freakin’ saw.” The reference, it turns out, was to the Japanese Princess Kaguya and the Irish Song of the Sea. Certainly, many Academy members take animation more seriously than that. But many may simply opt to nominate whichever CGI blockbuster managed to keep their kids quiet.

This year of all years, that would be a big mistake. Pixar’s Coco aside — the inevitable winner — it’s been an underwhelming year for Hollywood animation. The biggest hits include the lackluster third entries in the Cars and Despicable Me series, as well as the mystifying Boss Baby and The Emoji Movie, a genuinely loathsome feature-length smartphone commercial. And though they have their admirers, it’s hard to see The Lego Batman Movie, aimed squarely at Batfans, or Captain Underpants racking up many votes.

It would be criminal if any four of these movies were nominated alongside Coco at the expense of, say, Loving Vincent, a tender, oil-painted biopic about Vincent van Gogh; Mary and the Witch’s Flower, a fantasy adventure from alumni of Studio Ghibli; or The Breadwinner.

It may be too soon for despair. It’s possible that the non-specialist voters will take their responsibility seriously. “If opening the initial nomination process helps open more voters’ eyes to the breadth of what is truly possible in the animation medium, and makes them more excited to see these films in the future, then that would be a very positive outcome not just for us but for the entire industry,” says Jesteadt.

Looking to the nominations on Tuesday, we can only hope he’s right. The alternative would be a lamentable victory for mega budgets and commercialism, and a critical failure by the Academy to celebrate and promote great filmmaking, in all its forms.

Sam Summers is a researcher in animated film at the University of Sunderland. His latest book is Toy Story: How Pixar Reinvented the Animated Feature. Find him on Twitter at @SamSummers0.

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