The Secret to Making an Oscar-Nominated Short, According to Multiple Winner Kim Magnusson

"My only answer to that is to make some great films," said the prolific producer and former head of the Danish Academy.
On MY Mind
"On My Mind"
M&M Productions

Though most American moviegoers may not know his name, Kim Magnusson knows a great deal about our most fabled film institution — he’s something of an expert on the Academy Awards. A prolific producer who ran the Danish Film Academy for 20 years, Magnusson has received six Oscar nominations and won three times, all for short form narrative films. Under his production company M&M Productions, Magnusson’s first win came in 1999 for the Danish comedy “Election Night,” directed by Anders Thomas Jensen. He won again in 2002 for Martin Strange-Hansen’s “This Charming Man,” and then again in 2013 for Anders Walter’s “Helium.” This year, two M&M films have made the Oscars short list for best live action short. Naturally, with all of this recognition, people often ask Magnusson the secret to landing an Oscar nomination.

“My only answer to that is to make some great films,” Magnusson said during a recent phone interview. “That said, of course some people do say there are themes which are more relevant to the Academy. … In my view that might be a thing from the past, when the Academy was more Americanized than it is now.”

Only one American film made the short list for live action shorts this year, a rarity that is not entirely surprising given the Academy’s recent attempts to expand the voting pool. Particularly in the shorts branch, Magnusson said, having a wider reach internationally has been good for the nominations. Still, every year familiar themes do emerge, whether that reflects the universality of certain issues or Oscars voters’ personal tastes.

“In the old days there was maybe something about children and sickness and these things that maybe were themes that went well in the narrative format, and Academy voters liked that story,” he said. While he won’t concede that certain themes prevail at the Oscars, he does have insight into what makes a great short film.

“There’s no recipe, but just make it simple. People try to make too much information into a short, it becomes a feature film,” he said. “Sometimes you see shorts packed with all this information and then you don’t get a closing and you’re just sitting there flabbergasted going, ‘Okay, my God, why did I have to learn about this and this character if I don’t see what is happening with them?'”

Magnusson practices what he preaches. The two M&M films vying for nominations may not be similar in theme or setting, but they both approach storytelling from an emotional core and with a focused and simple narrative.

Martin Strange Hansen’s “On My Mind” is an emotional drama with a gently comedic undertone, following one grieving man’s singular mission to sing karaoke for his dying wife. The morning the doctors plan to take her off life support, he stumbles into a local watering hole, where he encounters a sweet bartender and her ornery boss. Having worked with Strange-Hansen’s on his Oscar-winning short “This Charming Man,” Magnusson jumped at the opportunity to work with him again.

“Even though he’s directed feature films before, this was for him to say, ‘I want to get back and show people that I’m still there.’ So even though he’s done it, he’s been to film school, he’s done all the things, he still felt like, ‘I need to tell this story because it’s a great short story.'”

While “On My Mind” is very contemporary, with only three main actors and set mainly in one location, Magnusson’s other contender is a period piece with many moving parts. “Stenofonen” tells the story of a son yearning for love from his withholding father, as told through an older man’s memories being shared with his adult son. An aspiring violin player, Jørn’s love of music is nearly ruined by his cold father’s impossible expectations. Through sharing the story with his son, he is able to reclaim that childhood joy. “Stenofonen” marks the directorial debut of actor Nicolaj Kopernikus, whom discerning television viewers may recognize from “The Killing.”

“It’s about control and it’s about being seen, being heard, that somebody believes in you, and that’s the message of that one,” said Magnusson.

Though Magnusson doesn’t court such accolades, he has a deep respect for the Academy, having used its rules as a model for the Danish Film Academy, which his father Tivi Magnusson helped found in 1982. Even with all the criticism the Oscars have received in recent years, Magnusson holds it up as the most fair film prize of the major awards.

“I believe that the Academy Awards is still the most fair film prize given out. …Because it’s a voting system and nobody knows who’s going to win before that envelope is opened. Nobody knows,” he said, noting 2016’s “Moonlight” debacle as an example. “I remember in the early days of the European Film Awards, everybody knew beforehand, there were things whispered in the ear, ‘You should come,’ and all that. …The process of coming to the Oscars, the voting and the awards given out…I just think it’s the most fair that can be built out there right now.”

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