At this year’s Academy Awards, cartoons won’t be considered kid stuff anymore. But will the inaugural award for Best Animated Feature (the Academy’s first new category since Best Makeup was added in 1981) tout actual aesthetics or box office clout? The two most talked-about contenders, Disney’s Monsters, Inc. and DreamWorks’ Shrek, have made a combined total of over $530 million. Nine films are currently eligible for the category, to be whittled down to three nomination spots by a 100-person committee (half animators, half general Academy members). Finalists will be announced on February 12. Dominated by studio efforts (including Final Fantasy, Osmosis Jones, and Jimmy Neutron), the animation race presents a major challenge for this year’s smaller entries.
Academy spokesperson John Pavlik acknowledges, “It’s highly likely that the two most popular films will make the list of three,” referring to virtual shoo-ins Monsters, Inc. and Shrek. But Pavlik adds, “Part of the committee’s hope is that having an Oscar for this category will generate some additional interest on the part of people financing animation and get some smaller companies and independent films into the selection in future years.”
Among those independents competing for the remaining nomination slot this year, Richard Linklater’s philosophical fantasia, Waking Life, has the best shot. Its box office is around 1 percent of Shrek‘s, but critical plaudits and a marketing push from Fox Searchlight could make it the David that beat out at least some of the Goliaths. According to Nancy Utley, head of marketing for Fox Searchlight, the Oscar campaign for Waking Life dates back to its initial release: They gave free access to Academy members back in the fall and sent out videotapes much earlier than is standard. Their biggest challenge, Utley says, has been “to change people’s mind-sets from animation meaning a G-rated film for the family to an R-rated film that includes ruminations about the meaning of life.”
While Utley says their marketing costs amount to roughly 5 percent of what Disney or DreamWorks are spending, that’s significantly more than the zero funds available to Marco Polo—Return to Xanadu, one of the shortlist’s true underdogs. A U.S.-Chinese-Slovak coproduction that employs traditional hand-drawn animation and took five years to make, the children’s film doesn’t even have a U.S. distributor yet. “You spend your last nickel getting this type of movie made,” says Marco Polo‘s director, Ron Merk. “There’s no way a small company can compete with what Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner are spending. The real issue is that you’re not on an even playing field, given your resources and their resources.”