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Arts & Entertainment

Will Oscar rule changes hurt animated indie films?

A still from the animated film
A still from the animated film "The Big Bad Fox & Other Tales," directed by Benjamin Renner.
Courtesy of GKIDS

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The Oscar nominations had been announced and Eric Beckman's phone was blowing up.

Beckman is the founder of GKIDS, a scrappy indie animation distributor specializing in hand-drawn and international animated features like "Boy and the World," "Song of the Sea" and "When Marnie Was There" — all Oscar nominees.

“The first film we picked up was ‘Secret of Kells,’” says Beckman. “That got the Oscar nomination and did phenomenally for us. It wasn’t really until we had the double nomination in 2012 with ‘Chico and Rita’ and ‘Cat in Paris’ that we said, ‘Oh, yeah. Maybe it’s not a fluke. Maybe there’s something here.’ And then we started really picking up a lot of films.”

But the calls in March 2017 weren't congratulatory. The Motion Picture Academy had recently altered the nominating process for Best Animated Feature.

Previously, the nominating committee for animated features was split equally between animators and members from other branches. Hoping to improve low voter turnout, reports Variety, the Academy decided that anyone who joined a nominating committee could now participate in the process.

Some people thought this would make it harder for indie films, which fewer people tend to see, to get a nod. But Beckman isn't too worried.

"I think good filmmaking will always win out.  If the Emoji movie gets a nomination, they'll realize there's something wrong," he says.

Nora Twomey co-directed “The Secret of Kells,” the first GKIDS release to receive an Oscar nomination. "Audiences are beginning to broaden out again and look at animation as something other than just something you can plonk a three year old in front of then walk away. You can express and talk about issues," she says.

Peter Debruge, Variety’s chief film critic, says Oscar attention has been the key to GKIDs’ success.

"They were showing the kind of movies that the animation community in Hollywood wanted to celebrate. And as soon as these movies were coming out in theaters, they were getting Academy Award nominations. And that so validated the mission of this company," he says.

GKIDS has earned nine nominations for Best Animated Feature in the past decade — more than Dreamworks or any other studio's animation division, except for Disney/Pixar.

But the Animated Feature category isn't without controversy. In 2015, the wildly popular "Lego Movie," a presumed Oscar frontrunner, didn't receive a nomination. That same year, GKIDS received two nominations, for Studio Ghibli’s "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya" and Cartoon Saloon’s "Song of the Sea."

Headlines called the "Lego snub" "inexplicable" and "awful." Individual Academy members went public with their dismay. There were widespread calls for reform.

It wasn’t the first time GKIDS played the spoiler.

In 2012, “Cars 2” became the first eligible Pixar movie in history not nominated for Best Animated Feature. GKIDS received two nominations that year.

"If you look at Pixar and Dreamworks animation movies, these are some of the highest grossing films of the year," says Variety’s Debruge. "And for that reason, these companies covet that prize. And they kind of resent when a little movie comes along and elbows into their category."

The Academy declined to speak with us on the record despite multiple requests but stated that their rules change isn’t designed to directly impact GKIDS — or anyone else. It’s a response to the fact that computer animation is now so ingrained in live-action movies that both types of production are intertwined.

The concern among GKIDS fans is that broader involvement in the nominating process could move the nominees toward more mainstream Hollywood fare.

French filmmaker Benjamin Renner, who was nominated for an Oscar in 2014 for the French movie "Ernest and Celestine," views the new nominating process as a challenge but says he understands the Academy's logic.

Renner says if an American movie got a big nomination in France it would cause a scandal. "In a way I think it's even better for us," he says. "Because that means we have to be even more focusing on making great film in a way."