While the live action and animated short film categories might not get a lot of airtime during the Oscar broadcast, the Academy makes up for it by hosting a special screening of the nominated shorts a week before the televised ceremony. The Academy’s annual Oscar Shorts screening has become such a hot ticket that this year it sold out within 15 minutes of going on sale. Although the nominated shorts have been touring the country theatrically thanks to a program organized by Magnolia Pictures and Shorts International and are now available on iTunes, it’s only at the Academy screening that the nominated filmmakers fly in from all over the world to participate in a panel discussion, moderated this year by Peter Riegert.
The golden-ticket holders who packed the Academy’s 1,012-seat Wilshire Boulevard theater on March 2, 2010 were treated to a four-hour event in which the nominated animated shorts screened first, followed by the live action films. Actor Peter Riegert, himself an Oscar nominee a decade ago for his live action short “By Courier,” was a convivial host, anchoring the panel discussions that took place immediately after each category wrapped. In his opening remarks, Riegert reminded each nominee that no matter who takes home a golden statue on Sunday night, by being nominated each of them has improved their obituary notices exponentially.
The first film that screened was Fabrice O. Joubert’s ““French Roast.” The café-set comedy depicting a respectable businessman who forgets his wallet and therefore can’t pay his coffee tab is definitely an audience pleaser and started the evening on a high note. Joubert revealed the hardest thing about the animation was doing the hair of the tramp who plays a crucial part in the story. Riegert praised the short, remarking, “I could taste that coffee, I felt like I was in that restaurant.”
“Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty” unspooled next. The bedtime story told by a bitter grandmother to a curly-haired and clearly frightened little girl delighted the crowd. Director Nicky Phelan revealed that he first came across Granny O’Grimm when writer/performer Kathleen O’Rourke was doing the character as a part of cabaret act; Phelan immediately knew Granny deserved to be a cartoon. Ms. O’Rourke, who was also in attendance at the Academy screening along with producer Darragh O’Connell from the Brown Bag Films production company, was given a special round of applause for her performance.
“The Lady and the Reaper (La Dama y la Muerte)” from animator Javier Recio Gracia is also comedy but a bit more surreal and morbid. The grim reaper fights with a heroic doctor for the life of a dying old woman. Antonio Banderas was listed as a producer on the short, but his involvement wasn’t mentioned in the Q&A. Instead, young Gracia talked about his background as a storyboard artist.
No animator was on hand to discuss the cops and robbers cartoon, “Logorama,” in which a gun-totting Ronald McDonald takes Bob’s Big Boy hostage. The audience howled each time another logo appeared unexpectedly. Certainly there would have been many questions had Nicolas Schmerkin been able to attend the screening.
The final animation was hands down the audience favorite. Applause rang out as soon as the title appeared for the latest Wallace & Gromit adventure, “A Matter of Loaf and Death.” With many Oscars already on his shelf, Nick Park is an old favorite in this category. Unfortunately, Mr. Park wasn’t at the March 2 screening, but surely he’ll be at the Kodak Theatre when the envelope is opened.
The live action category is particularly strong this year with no obvious frontrunner. Unlike a few years back when “West Bank Story” had such a strong screening that everyone in the theater felt confident it was going to take home the gold, this year no single film emerged as the clear winner.
Director Juanita Wilson, the only woman present on either panel, contributed the family tragedy, “The Door.” Wilson, who has already directed her next project, a feature entitled “As If I’m Not There,” said she had read a man’s account of his family’s experience in Chernobyl, and the image of the man riding his motorcycle with a door strapped to the back haunted her. She also explained that she filmed in an actual abandoned Russian city that still had extremely highly radiation levels.
Patrik Eklund was the only live action director who wasn’t at the screening. A shame, because his nutty magician saga, “Instead of Abracadabra,” garnered tons of laughs and would have solicited interesting questions from Riegert.
USC grad student Gregg Helvey was on hand to talk about his film, “Kavi,” which has already won the Student Academy Award. When Riegert complimented the lead actor, Helvey explained that the child who played the titular character didn’t speak any English, which made directing challenging. Also shooting in India during monsoon season was problematic, the production completing their seven-day shoot two hours before a storm hit.
Australian director Luke Doolan and producer Drew Bailey of “Miracle Fish” brought along their Blue-Tongue team, explaining that they’re part of a larger filmmaking collaborative who work on each other’s films. Doolan has been an editor on many Blue-Tongue films (he edited “Miracle Fish” as well). The school-set film got a great reaction from the audience, who collectively jumped in their seats at the film’s unexpected climax.
The final film screened was ““The New Tenants,” the story of an apartment with a worrisomely recent history. Director Joachim Back and producer Tivi Magnusson explained they shot the film at New York’s famed Chelsea Hotel, which helped provide a certain vibe for the twisted storytelling. Moderator Riegert pointed out that the final scene involving dancing on a bridge took place on the same bridge that was used for “West Side Story.”
After the screening, audience members lingered in the lobby, debating which films might ultimately take home the grand prize. The overall consensus was that we’ll all just have to wait for the big show on Sunday night.