The problem with the short film categories


You'll recall that a while back I posted my ideas about how the Academy Awards could be improved (How can we save the Oscars?). I'm glad to see at least one of my suggestions were taken to heart (Billy's back!), but as we're approaching the 84th award show, I'd like to take the opportunity to reiterate one of my original pet peeves. It's about the short films.


The Definition

First, let's define what we're talking about here. There are three short film categories:

  • Best Live-Action Short
  • Best Animated Short
  • Best Documentary Short

A short is defined as a film, with a running time of 40 minutes or less.

To qualify for the awards a movie must adhere to a few general rules: They can't be shown on TV first, they can't be edited versions of longer projects, and so on, basically the same rules all the feature films must follow.

A Live-Action or Animated short is eligible, if one of these conditions are met:

a) The film has a 3-day paid public exhibition i LA.
b) The film has won an award at a film festival (from a specific list).
c) If it's a student film it can qualify by winning in the Student Academy Awards competition.

For documentaries only one rule applies:

a) The film must have a 7-day commercial run in a theater in LA or Manhattan.

These are the basic rules the shorts must follow.

The Purpose

To the uninitiated it might seem that a short film is merely that. A short film. A film that's short and not long. The reality is, though, that short films and feature films have little in common.

No one watches short films and no one cares. They're rarely shown on TV or at the cinema, the newspapers and film magazines don't cover them, and only a fraction are released on DVD, so it's fair to ask the question... Why are they made?

Well, it's simple, really. They are made, to earn the filmmakers the right to make feature films. That's it. They are the means to an end.

The Quality

I'll admit I don't watch many short films. On the rare occasion, when I get a chance to watch one of the Academy Award nominated ones, I'm often appalled at how bad they are. There are some good ones among them, even a few brilliants ones, I dare say, but by and large these films are shit.

Every year when the nominations are announced I look at each of the short categories and ask (often out loud), are these REALLY the five best shorts films of the year? The best of the best? No. Hell no. Unequivocally no!

I guess the same critique could be leveled at the feature film categories. Depending on your personal preferences they rarely represent the best of the best either, but at least the feature film choices always make sense, when you know the Academy's taste.

When it comes to the shorts, the choices seem erratic, borderline insane. This is especially true for the animated shorts, some of which are so defiantly bad, you'd be forgiven for suspecting that the Academy members are actually trying to sabotage the category, so it'll go away.

The Selection

The big problem is the way these films are selected. A feature film can quality by being shown in LA for a week for a paying audience. That's seems simple and fair.

Like I explained earlier, shorts can qualify in different ways. If you have the right connections, and an amenable theater owner, you can qualify simply by paying to have your film shown. A film can also qualify on the strengths of its artistic merits, by winning an award. So the message is, either make a good film, or buy your way in. That's not a level playing field!

I don't know what goes on, when the short film committee selects the nominated films. In light of the utterly incomprehensible final choices, I would not presume to guess what you have to do to get through the eye of that needle, but it must be illegal in at least 40 states.

Once the nominees are found, the winner is selected by only a few hundred people. Those who bother to show up at an official Academy screening to see the films in an actual theatrical setting - you can't sit at home and watch screeners if you want to be a part of this.

The shorts are nominated side by side with the feature films, but they are not treated equally in any way. It's bad enough that you allow feature films to get a nomination with a limited one week run in LA, but some shorts can be nominated, hell even win, without ever being seen by a single member of the general public.

This is a muddled scene. It's not transparent, it's not fair, and it should not be a part of the Academy Awards.



Hundreds of interesting shorts are produced each year. Some are never really released, some are shown on TV, or as part of a short film festival, some of them go straight to YouTube.

It's a big and wondrous world out there, millions of stories and fascinating ideas make their way to short films every year, but in the hands of the Academy, shorts are reduced to a sticky unidentifiable substance stuck under your shoe. We use the short categories for pee break, when we watch the show, for God's sake! And when it's all over we never hear from them again, and we can barely remember the titles the next day.

The shorts deserved to be treated with respect, to have their own space, and frankly the further away from the Academy Awards they are, the better off they'll be. I used to think that there was a way to fix this, but I've changed my mind. So, Dear Academy, please drop all three short film categories from the show.

You'll be happier, they'll be happier, and the audience will never know the difference.


The images are from the following shorts: Presto (2008), Królik po berlinsku (Rabbit in Berlin) (2009), Logorama (2009), Grisen (2009) and Ryan (2004).

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