With the first ever Academy Awards ceremony taking place in 1929, we have almost 100-years of prize giving to look back at and analyse for trends and patterns. For the short film categories, they go back almost as far, with Best Animated Short Film introduced in 1930, Best Live Action Short Film in the following year of 1931 and then Best Documentary Short Film 10-years later in 1941.
In the world of features, much has already been written about the lack of representation in the 2023 nominees – the Best Director category is once again all male and Andrea Riseborough’s surprise inclusion in the Best Actress category led to an #OscarsSoWhite revival – and we all know that playing the lead in a biopic can often lead to Oscar glory for actors, but what about the short film categories? What have the years of nominees and winners told us about what The Academy tend to favor in this trio of awards?
Short of the Week is finally going to try and answer these questions, as we take a look at the Oscar short film trends.
The Rise of the Executive Producer
Over the last couple of years, we’ve noticed the growing trend of recognisable names being attached to a number of Oscar hopefuls, in the guise of Executive Producer. The likes of Laura Dern (If Anything Happens I Love You), Jordan Peele (Hair Love) and Shaquille O’Neal + Steph Curry (The Queen of Basketball) all now have Exec Producer credits on Academy Award winning short films and Woody Harrelson (The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse) and Malala Yousafzai (The Stranger at the Gate) hope to join the club in 2023. Attaching these famous names to a short may feel like a PR stunt, but that should come as no surprise as the shorts are part of the relentless Oscar campaign battle, along with the features. 2022’s winner of the Best Documentary Short Film award, Ben Proudfoot, was keen to highlight (when talking to press after his win) the role of his celebrity exec producers in helping to get people to watch his film, so I don’t think this is a trend we’ll see the end of anytime soon.
The Draw of Celebrity Stars
Animated films about basketball superstars, acclaimed rap artists in lead roles, Oscar-winning actors playing mysterious callers at the end of a phone line, celebrities in short film is a trend that dates back almost 10-years to Mat Kirby’s Live-Action winner The Phone Call. Since then, we’ve seen more winning films featuring famous names, including last year’s winner The Long Goodbye – a short film made to accompany the actor/musician’s second album, of the same name. With the likes of Oscar Isaac, Richard E Grant and Gillian Anderson also starring in nominated shorts and Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar recently vying for inclusion in the Best Live Action Short Film shortlist the only names to standout in the 2023 nominees are those of Tom Hollander, Idris Elba and Gabriel Byrne, all of whom appear in animation big hitter The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse – an indicator of which film will with that award this year?
The Battle of the Streamers
The fight between platforms to host potential Oscar-winning short films is one we’ve seen heat up in recent years. One look at our shortlists post for the 2023 awards will confirm this, with films available to stream on Apple+, BBC iPlayer, Disney+, HBO Max, National Geographic, Netflix, Paramount+, The Criterion Channel, The New Yorker and The New York Times. While Apple may have stolen headlines in 2022 when it was the first streaming service honoured with the Best Picture award, for Netflix it was Orlando von Einsiedel’s documentary short The White Helmets that won its first-ever Academy Award back in 2017. Although these streaming platforms appear more focused on getting their hands on the “bigger” awards, the fight for potential Oscar-winning short films is still a fierce one and shows no signs of letting up.
The Dwindling Dominance of Animation’s Big Studios
There was a time where it felt like you could predict the winner of the Best Animated Short award by looking at which shorts screened before Disney features at the cinema. With the animation giant winning four trophies in this category between 2012 & 2018 this prize was in danger of confirming the misguided view that animation is only for kids (I’m looking at you Amy Schumer!). However, in recent years we’ve seen this trend start to change with 2018 marking Disney’s last short film win (with Bao) and 2022 winner Alberto Mielgo (The Windshield Wiper) using his speech to praise the fact that the majority of the nominees in his category we’re “non-commercial or mainstream”. Hopefully, this is the impact of the expansion of the Academy over recent years, as we’ve seen recognisable names from independent animation – such as Réka Bucsi, Jeanette Jeanenne, Adrien Mérigeau, Erick Oh, Sean Buckelew, Dan Ojari, Mikey Please and more – join the organisation. With four out of the five 2023 nominees in the Animated Short category once again independent productions, this is one trend we definitely hope the Academy members continue.
The Continued Liberalization of the Short Film Eligibility Rules
In 2022, when the three winners (The Long Goodbye, The Queen of Basketball & The Windshield Wiper) of the short film categories were announced, here at SotW we were proud to have already featured all of the titles on our pages. As the preeminent voice in online film curation at first glance this may not seem like a big surprise, but with only one of the winners in 2021 freely available online it shows that changes are happening in the attitudes towards Oscar eligibility in conjunction with an online release. While criticism over diversity problems and a global pandemic recently forced Academy rule changes, it was actually back in 2014 when the change regarding distribution was made for the short film categories, with the amendments stating that: In the Animated Short Film and Live Action Short Film categories, films that have received prior nontheatrical public exhibition or distribution may now qualify for Academy Awards consideration by winning a festival award on the Short Films Qualifying Festival List. That alteration was not only influential in the aforementioned battle of the streamers, it has also resulted in the tendency for short films to consider an online release as part of their Oscar campaign, something we’re obviously all for at Short of the Week.
Can Short Film HElp improve Gender balance At the Awards?
We reported on the disappointing representation stats at the Oscars in our Gender Representation in Short Film article, where we found that the last winning director who identified as female in the three short film categories was in 2020, when Carol Dysinger won Best Documentary Short Film with Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if you’re a girl). In general, the Documentary and Animation categories tend to perform much better than it’s Live-Action counterpart, in this respect, with the Andrea Arnold the last female director to win the latter back in 2005 with Wasp. Looking at the 2023 short film nominees, female directors make up 57% of the filmmakers in Documentary category, while Animation stands at 43%. Once again, it’s Live-Action bringing the average down to 40% across the three categories, with just one nominee (17%) from a director who identifies as a female with Alice Rohrwacher (Le Pupille). Although improvements could be made across the short film nominees, compared to the Academy Award for Best Director’s, once again, all-male shortlist, short film offers the only hope of seeing a female director get her hands on one of those prized statuettes at the 2023 ceremony.