Christy Grosz is Editor of AwardsLine

Although short films have been a part of the Oscars since 1931, the live-action, animation, and documentary shorts categories are getting more time in the spotlight than ever before. Voting on the winners in each category will be open to the entire Academy membership for the first time this year, and the Academy is sending DVDs of the nominees to every member — two changes that Jon Bloom, who chairs the short films and feature animation branch, says were important to the executive committee.

“It is, for us, a bit of an experiment”, Bloom explains. “Everything within the Academy about the awards is a work in progress from the standpoint that we’re all always trying to make things better”.

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Nevertheless, it’s all about visibility when making voters and viewers take notice of these small yet powerful categories. And Bloom points to the theatrical and video-on-demand program, Oscar Nominated Short Films 2013, that DirecTV’s ShortsHD short-movie channel began offering to consumers eight years ago as helping elevate the profile of short films.

“The huge breakthrough was to think of the shorts as a collection, meaning being feature length and being available in a way that fits”, Bloom says of the program, which packages each category of film into a theatrical, iTunes, and VOD presentation. “By having the Academy’s seal of approval on a handful of shorts that are being touted as special, then having audiences respond to those, has been very gratifying for us”.

It has also been a relatively successful venture for ShortsHD, its distribution partner Magnolia Films, and the nominated filmmakers. Theatrical receipts have increased 800% since the program’s 2005 debut, and 2012’s package ranked in the top 50 grossing independent releases, earning $1.7 million nationwide.

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“Last year, we made a 5% return on the release. We consider it marketing, rather than something we’re trying to make money on”, ShortsHD CEO Carter Pilcher says, adding that each nominated filmmaker receives a $5,000 flat-fee advance. “After we recover the costs of the release — we work very hard not to make them very expensive — we then do a 50/50 split on all the receipts”.

(The documentary shorts are part of the doc branch, and four of the five nominees are owned by HBO, so ShortsHD pays a fee for the right to include them in the release.)

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Making short films more accessible has increased Oscar submissions in the categories, as well. “The numbers are not staggering when you look at a Sundance that’s getting something like 7,500 shorts submitted to them”, Bloom says. “But this year, we had 120 live-action and 55 animated shorts. For us, that was a record number in those two categories. It’s partly the digital explosion that’s making tools and opportunities more plentiful and more affordable”.

They’ve have also become an appealing alternative for international filmmakers looking for Academy validation, according to London-based Pilcher, who says this year’s rule changes are “one of the best things the Academy has done”.

“We’re teaching them slowly that the other route to an Oscar for a national film is short film”, Pilcher says, adding that live-action and animation shorts Oscars are generally won by foreign filmmakers. “Countries find it very difficult to compete except in the foreign-language film category, but it’s an enormous political gunfight to decide which film of theirs will be the one to go to the Oscars”.

Although the Oscars are watched less attentively east of France, anytime a local filmmaker gets a nomination, it’s cause for national celebration, says Pilcher, pointing to Belgian nominee Tom Van Avermaet, who directed the live-action Death of a Shadow. “They’re sending over TV crews. It has huge national interest suddenly. All of Belgium will be paying attention to this particular category”, Pilcher says.

Receiving a nomination means a lot to filmmakers around the world, but a win can be career-changing, particularly for those who are already toiling in the trenches of Hollywood. For example, Chris Wedge’s 1999 win for Bunny made the industry take notice of the animation house he founded, Blue Sky, which ultimately partnered with Fox on the Ice Age movies. And Brave director Mark Andrews was nominated for his animated short One Man Band in 2006, no doubt raising his profile in Pixar.

Whatever additional changes come to the categories, they will be about bringing attention to an artform that deserves to be seen. “In many ways, the shorts categories are the purest and most passionate of any of the Oscar categories because these are not big commercial projects. They’re labors of love”, Bloom explains. “We don’t think we’re pulling the train. We know that people are most interested in the features and in the glitzy stuff. But we’ve gained a tremendous amount of traction with the public in terms of excitement in the category, and not just from people who aspire to make a short and win an Oscar”.