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Are Festival Short Films Being Pushed Out of Awards Season? 

2024 marked the year Wes Anderson finally won an Oscar after fans had been demanding his win since the release of The Royal Tenenbaums in 2002. Though, it was a perfectly adapted short film that finally got him that win—not a highly anticipated feature as expected. Backed by Netflix, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, was definitely a worthy contender but with a big director, the Roald Dahl estate, and Benedict Cumberbatch attached to this film, did the other nominees really stand a chance? 

The presence of big studios, such as Netflix and Disney, didn’t just come from Wes Anderson and The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar however but the other winning films in the short categories too, including best animated short, War is Over! Inspired by the Music of John and Yoko, and best documentary short, The Last Repair Shop. So how exactly are these winning films linked to big studios and what does this mean for grass root filmmakers? Are indie festival short films being pushed out of festival season altogether?  

How Are The 2024 Oscar Winning Films Linked to Big Studios?

Adapted from the famous Roald Dahl book, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar chronicles a variety of stories, but the main one follows Henry Sugar, who can see through objects and predict the future with the help of a book he stole. 

Unlike traditional Oscar nominated short films, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar didn’t come from the festival circuit in the same way its predecessor, An Irish Goodbye did, but from the massive streaming service, Netflix. This is somewhat controversial as in 2013 Disney posted their Oscar nominated short film, Paperman, to YouTube and subsequently other nominees followed suit. The Academy then insisted the films were taken down for two reasons: theatres showing the films worried profits would go down significantly, and the Academy Awards were designed specifically to ‘awarding cinematic excellence’. A decade has passed since this controversy and with the explosion of streaming platforms, reduced theatrical windows and a slow recovery for cinemas post-lockdown, audience behaviours have shifted massively. As a result, the attitudes of the Academy toward content created not for the cinema seems to have shifted as well.

Nevertheless, it does raise the question, did The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar win the Best Live-Action Short Film award because of the big names and streaming studio behind it? And if so, what does this mean for films traversing the festival circuit attempting to break into this space?

Now, let’s go on to talk about the Best Animated Short Film Winner, War is Over! Inspired By the Music of John & Yoko. 

Now, this film is interesting when it comes to the presence of large studios. Firstly, in a similar way to its predecessor, The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and the Horse, War is Over! didn’t rely on winning at Oscar-qualifying festivals. 

Written by Sean Lennon and Dave Mullins, War Is Over! Is a beautifully animated short that finds humanity even in war, through the exploration of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s music. 

Dave Mullins has previously worked as an animator for Disney and has credits on much-loved and multi-award-winning productions, such as Soul, Incredibles 2, Cars 2 and The Good Dinosaur. To say that Mullins brings valuable skills and experience to the project would be something of an understatement as he is arguably one of the most accomplished filmmakers working in animation today. 

Alongside Brad Booker, Dave Mullins runs Electro League, a large special effects and animation studio based out of Los Angeles. Brad Booker, the CEO of the animation studio behind War is Over! has previously worked at Warner Bros, Sony Pictures and Weta FX, with animation credits that include IRON GIANT, Stuart Little, SPIDER-MAN and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Next up we have a film that did its rounds on the festival circuit and won the Oscar for the Best Short Documentary, The Last Repair Shop. This film tells the story of four unassuming heroes who ensure no student is deprived of the joy of music. It is also a reminder of how music can be the best medicine, stress reliever and even escape from poverty. 

Directed by Kris Bowers and Ben Proudfoot, this beautifully classical documentary explores the stories of four people who work at a repair shop for musical instruments in downtown Los Angeles. This repair shop fixes musical instruments for schools all around the US at no cost to ensure children can experience the joy and escapism that comes from music. 

This short documentary was produced by Breakwater Studio and acquired by Searchlight Pictures and LA Times Studios ahead of its Oscar nomination in January this year. It was later released online and on Disney+ on 16th January 2024 (again ahead of the Oscar nominations on 23rd January).

This is an interesting case as this was an independent short film, which traversed the festival circuit and went on to be acquired by a major studio ahead of being nominated for and subsequently winning an Academy Award. Of the three winners in the shorts categories, this is the case that seems to encapsulate the ‘dream’ journey of the independent filmmaker the most.  

So, what about previous years? How many live-action, animation and documentary short films had the backing of large studios? Well, we went back to 2017 to have a look. 

Previous Oscar Winning Short Films Backed by Large Studios 

The Windshield Wiper was directed by Alberto Mielgo and won the award for Best Animated Short Film in 2022. Mielgo is an art-director with credits that include, Tron: Uprising and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The production house behind this film was PASTEL, headed by Barry Jenkins who won the Best Motion Picture Oscar for his film, Moonlight in 2016. 

If Anything Happens, I Love You was directed by Will McCormack and won the Oscar for best animated short film in 2021. This film was again released by Netflix and was produced by Gilbert Films, which produced the Oscar winning feature film, La La Land, 2016.

Bao was written and directed by Domee Shi and won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film in 2019. Shi wrote Turning Red for Disney and earned their backing as they also produced this short film. 

Dear Basketball featuring the late Kobe Bryant, was directed by Glen Keane and won the award for Best Animated Short Film in 2018. The film was produced by Glen Keane’s own production company who links to Disney with credits that include The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Tarzan

Piper was directed by Alan Barillaro and won the award for Best Animated Short Film in 2017. The film was produced by Pixar as Barillaro has notable credits that include Lightyear and Wall-E

And finally, The White Helmets was directed by Orlando von Einsieldel and won the award for Best Short Documentary Film in 2017. This film was also produced and distributed by Netflix. While not all of these winners were studio backed, there is certainly a great deal of high-level industry representation within the winners of the short film categories in the last several years.

So, Are Festival Short Films Being Pushed Out of Award Season? 

It is understandable why grass root filmmakers who depend on the festival circuit for exposure may be worried about the seemingly increasing presence of Netflix, Disney and industry stalwarts in the short film categories. In the case of animation this is nothing new, as almost every year for the past 7 years, large studios have walked away with the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. But if you look back at nominees over the same stretch of time, big names and streamers only start becoming prevalent in 2021 with The Letter Room starring Oscar Isaac, If Anything Happens I Love You and Two Distant Strangers all being nominated that year. The latter two being Netflix-backed and winning the award in their categories (Live Action and Animation). In that time, shorts such as The Neighbors Window, Sing, and The Silent Child, have still walked away with Oscars. And I think ultimately, while the likes of Netflix and Disney have the industry infrastructure to rely on, independent short films can still have a shot at the big prizes. The 94th Academy Awards saw Netflix field an all star cast in the animated short film category (the excellent Robin, Robin) and the prize still went to the visually stunning The Windshield Wiper. So, while this emergence should pique our attention, this is still an arena where the resilience and passion of grassroots filmmakers can still carve  a valuable spot for emerging voices in the independent space.

It can even be argued that the increased presence of big names in the short film categories is making the medium as a whole more visible and valuable to the streaming landscape. Might producers start seeing the commercial potential in shorter, more focused narratives that explore real-world issues? Might this, in turn open up opportunities for independent short film creators or will the superior resources of the major studios or visibility of creatives formerly employed by said studios, make the short film categories their domain?

The future remains uncertain across the film and cinema landscape, but when it comes to short film, if indeed the larger industry is eyeing the space that independent filmmakers have dominated, it seems that there is everything to play for, now more than ever.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments! 



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