Remember when Cinemark theaters threatened to boycott Tower Heist because it would be available on VOD during its theatrical release? Imagine if a film were available in full, not only on pay-per-view, but online for free during its theatrical release. That’s what happened with this year’s Oscar-nominated animated shorts, which cable channel ShortsHD, in conjunction with the Academy, has been screening around the country since Feb. 1.
After free versions of all five animated shorts cropped up on websites like YouTube and Hulu, theaters showing the films threatened to stop screening the animated slate if the films remained online for free. So ShortsHD asked the nominees to pull their films from the web, as first reported by Deadline.
EW talked to nominees in the animated shorts category at the ShortsHD Shorts Awards on Friday about this, and none of them seemed fazed by the call to take their films off the web. And Carter Pilcher, ShortsHD chief executive, didn’t meet any resistance to his request – free versions of all five shorts have been taken off the web. But the questions still remain how the theatrical release’s revenue was impacted, whether having free versions online impacts a short’s Oscar chances, and what the Academy and ShortsHD will do next year.
Now in its eighth year of a theatrical release of the nominees in all three shorts categories (with each category as one theatrical presentation), the ShortsHD screenings were held in 50 percent more theaters than last year, when the release grossed $1.7 million. But, Pilcher told EW, this year they are “not giving the return we anticipated” – there has not been a 50 percent increase in box office gross.
It is difficult to tell whether or how having the films on YouTube – uploaded by those who own the films, studios like Disney, in the case of Paperman, or the National Film and Television School, in the case of Head Over Heels, for example – impacted the release’s box office gross. The theaters don’t report to ShortsHD the break-down of how many tickets sold for each category (animation, live action, and documentary) until the end of the theatrical run, Pilcher said. All three categories combined have thus far made about what the theatrical run earned last year — and still have a few weeks remaining in the release.
The ShortsHD head would not comment on how many theaters actually did stop showing the animated shorts earlier than planned, but he did say “the vast majority stayed with us.”
Getting as many people as possible to see the shorts on the big screen is one thing – but how does this all impact who Academy members choose to win? Do shorts with free versions online have an edge in the awards race? Pilcher says no, because Academy members get screeners of all the shorts anyway. But buzz created by the general public who catch the shorts online can help bring more attention to an individual film, which may be especially beneficial this year since Academy members are no longer required to attend a screening with all the shorts to be eligible to vote in the category. Previously, the only way for Oscar voters to see the shorts would be to attend a private Academy screening. Last year, for the first time, they were allowed to see a ShortsHD showing to become eligible to vote for the shorts. Now all members get DVD screeners of all 15 shorts and are not required to prove they’ve watched them.
Many voters admitted they waited until the last minute to watch the shorts – and some never did. But still, far more Academy members saw the films this year than ever before. Those who didn’t told EW they would simply abstain from voting in that field.
Pilcher, who is a member of the Academy’s Short Films and Feature Animation Branch, said, “I think there will be in my branch a lot of decisions to make about where this [theatrical run] is headed.”
One thing seems sure: Despite a wave of change in recent years of how entertainment is distributed and seen, the Academy holds tight to its belief in the power of the movie theater.
“When you’re out there in Internet world, it all sounds like an Oscar should be for anything, but it’s not. An Oscar’s about the cinema,” Pilcher said. “There’s something about being in a room with a group of people and the light and the magic and the darkness. It’s special. You can’t replicate it on the Internet or anywhere else.”
Short films can qualify for an Oscar in one of three ways, and two require the film to get on the big screen: a film festival award and a theatrical run. (The third way is earning a win at the Student Academy Awards.)
But though the Oscars remain attainable only by films that get the movie theater treatment, the ability to distribute shorts online has given new life to the format. One producer of an Oscar-nominated film last year said that “we are entering the golden age of short films” thanks to technology that makes it easier for anyone to make a film and for any film to find an audience online. So it is a bit ironic that theater owners, who got rid of shorts before features to make room for more trailers and commercials, are trying to take them back after iTunes and YouTube make them popular again.
So where can you see the Oscar-nominated shorts now? They’re still showing in theaters for another month or so (a list of participating theaters is on ShortsHD’s website). And the cable channel also made several of the shorts available on iTunes and VOD on Feb. 19. The documentary shorts will all eventually air on HBO.
Follow Emily on Twitter: @EmilyNRome