Academy’s rule change could dash Irish animation Oscar hopes

Rule changes in the Oscars could make it tough for independent animated films such as Song of the Sea to secure nominations

Even the most fervent Oscar fanatic is probably now enjoying relief from gossip about the runners and riders for the season’s biggest awards. But the Academy did make an announcement worth attending this week.

Significant changes have been made in rules applying to two of the orphan categories: best documentary feature and best animated feature. The awarding of the former award to OJ: Made in America triggered some controversy this year. There was no argument about the quality of the submission. The ESPN documentary covered the OJ Simpson case and its consequences with magisterial confidence. But surely it was a five-part miniseries?

Some critics have argued persuasively that definitions are now so shaky – is an original Netflix feature TV or cinema? – that it is hardly worth having the conversation. The general feeling was that some entities are very clearly not movies. Made in America may have qualified by playing Sundance, but it was definitely one such beast. It's telly, pal. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has moved.

“In the documentary categories, multi-part or limited series are not eligible for awards consideration,” a statement read. “The Documentary Branch Executive Committee will resolve all questions of eligibility and rules.”


That rule change has been largely well received. Another announcement – on the surface less dramatic – has triggered a great deal more rending of garments. It has emerged that, in future, the nominees for best animated feature, rather than being voted on by the animation branch, will be decided by the greater electorate.

“Invitations to join the nominating committee will be sent to all active Academy members, rather than a select craft-based group,” the Academy clarified. “Voting in the nominations round will now be preferential instead of based on a numerical scoring system.”

Come back. This really matters. And it could be a bad thing for the Irish film industry. Since the category was incepted in 2001, it has proved one of the most interesting and eclectic corners of the Academy Awards. Pixar and their friends at Disney are much in evidence, but, in the award's second year, top prize went to Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki. Other nominees have included Sylvain Chomet's Belleville Rendezvous, Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle, Benjamin Renner and Didier Brunner's Ernest & Celestine and Isao Takahata and Yoshiaki Nishimura's The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.

And, of course, Kilkenny's Cartoon Saloon has scored twice: with The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. Those were remarkable achievements for the Irish film industry. It cannot but have helped that they were chasing a select, educated electorate that appreciated independent animation and understood how the art worked.

These films' nominations cannot be attributed to a dearth of mainstream competition. In a stunning upset, Song of the Sea and Princess Kaguya got in ahead of the highly acclaimed, hugely successful Lego Movie. This year, My Life as a Zucchini and The Red Turtle beat out Pixar's (admittedly not very good) Finding Dory.

Unsurprisingly, there have been suggestions that the rule change came about because the studios were upset about smaller, independent films nudging aside blockbusters. We can’t know if this is true. But it seems inevitable that calling on fewer voters with specialist knowledge will favour the big beasts over the plucky scrappers.

Could Song of the Sea have beat out The Lego Movie if every steak-eating, middle-aged dad in the Academy were eligible to vote? The problem is not that such voters will inevitably prefer the Warners flick to the smaller Cartoon Saloon release. The problem is that Johnny steak-eater won't have bothered to watch the film from Kilkenny.

Let's wait and see what happens with Nora Twomey's upcoming The Breadwinner. The Cartoon Saloon release – a Canadian-Irish-Luxembourgian production – is due towards the end of the year. Set in Afghanistan, the picture concerns a girl forced to dress as a boy so that she can work to support her family. Everyone expects it to be in the conversation come Oscar season. The fight to be noticed may have just got that bit tougher.

Mind you, Angelina Jolie is producer. So they might be all right after all.