Oscar-nominated filmmakers in this year’s Animated Shorts competition found themselves stuck between a rock and hard place last week when they were asked to remove their films from the Internet by an Academy affiliate prior to the Oscar voting deadline. The request arrived at a crucial point in the Oscar race when buzz for the category was at its highest in years. It put nominees in a pickle, faced with choosing between allowing the widest audience possible to see their films, and getting paid for them.
The sprint for last-minute Oscar buzz began when Disney made its Oscar-nominated short Paperman widely available online on January 29. The move gave Disney a bump in publicity with three weeks left before Oscar ballots were due February 19. Nominated films were to be made available for digital purchase on February 19 as well via Shorts International’s ShortsHD program, but a race to post free full versions online ensued among fellow nominees, including Head Over Heels directed by Timothy Reckart and Adam & Dog directed by Minkyu Lee. Both films were subsequently posted to the Internet in their entirety. (Fox’s Maggie Simpson In ‘The Longest Daycare’ had a strategic release plan already in place and made its broadcast debut following Sunday’s episode of The Simpsons.) The fifth contender in the category, Showtime’s entry Fresh Guacamole, had been available via the network’s YouTube channel since March 2012 as part of its Short Stories series.
As the nominated films began circulating online for free, Academy distribution partner Shorts International expressed concern that the theatrical release of the Oscar-nominated shorts slate would suffer a sizable box office hit. Shorts International, which distributes the shorts nominees via ShortsHD on iTunes, On Demand, and premiered the lineup in theaters on February 1 with partner Magnolia Pictures, spooked filmmakers in a letter dated February 14 requesting that the films be taken offline. Saying attendance at theaters for the animated shorts program had “plummeted” as a result of the online postings, the letter warned that theater owners might strike the program altogether if the shorts were not taken down immediately: “We are receiving a very significant, adverse reaction from the independent theaters that are playing the films”, read the letter from Shorts International head Carter Pilcher, “and we are now being told that if the films remain online, many theaters are starting to pull the release beginning tomorrow” (read the letter here, obtained by Deadline from a source close to the situation). According to Pilcher and Magnolia Pictures no theaters have yet specifically pulled the program citing the films’ online presence.
In his letter Pilcher argued that posting online didn’t give the nominees a leg up on the competition, because Oscar voters were provided with DVDs of the nominated films for viewing consideration. But another source told Deadline that the buzz created around the films’ online availability in recent weeks prior to the voting deadline was crucial to the films’ awards campaigns. They also said representatives of Shorts International were “probably overreacting” as far as the negative impact the films’ online presence had on ticket sales. According to a recent ShortsHD release, theatrical receipts have grown by 800% since the program was introduced in 2006. In 2012 the release earned $1.7 million and cracked the Top 50 grossing independent theatrical releases of the year. Filmmakers are paid a $5,000 flat fee advance for inclusion in the program and earn a 50/50 split on receipts after ShortHD recoups operational costs, Pilcher told Deadline earlier this month. The organization would not comment on its communications with filmmakers but said in an email to Deadline, “We are very excited to support the filmmakers in getting theatrical exposure that they might never get and providing revenue streams to them to help defray the cost of their films”.
While considerable awareness remains for Fox’s Maggie Simpson in ‘The Longest Daycare’ and Disney’s Paperman — the two nominees with studio-backing and serious campaign resources — indie entries Head Over Heels and Adam & Dog have risked the most in complying with Shorts International’s request. Showtime’s Fresh Guacamole, meanwhile, is the odd man out. Already online for nearly a year, it arguably benefited less than its competitors from last week’s mad rush for publicity. But Fresh Guacamole is also the lone nominated entry that remains online free of charge as Showtime mulls Shorts International’s request for a courtesy takedown. It’s been viewed over 7.5 million times to date on YouTube.
The short’s director PES, however, tells Deadline that sharing work for free on the Internet has significant non-financial rewards for a filmmaker. It’s what he says brought him to Showtime’s attention in the first place, which led them to give him free creative reign to make Fresh Guacamole. “I’ve been posting my films online for over 10 years — I believe in making my films and sharing them with the world”, he told Deadline. Short filmmakers have limited opportunities to make money from having their work screened theatrically because “it’s difficult to tell people to go to a theater to watch a 1-2 minute film. [But] I can make ideas and put them out there, and they can influence people and build a reputation that brings more opportunities to make more films”.