Oscar-Qualifying Film Festivals Transformed Awards Season Into a Competitive Short Film Race

For nearly 40 years, film festivals have played a critical role in catapulting short films to Oscar glory.
"Two Distant Strangers"
Oscar-winning short film "Two Distant Strangers"
Courtesy of ShortsTV

Editor’s note: On Friday, December 9, IndieWire is co-hosting a special screening of 2023 Oscar-qualified short films as part of LA3C in partnership with National Geographic Documentary Films and ShortsTV. Apply to the attend the event in Los Angeles at this link.

Almost 40 years ago, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences issued a rule change that would send a ripple effect throughout the film community. Years before the expansion of Best Picture to 10 categories or the introduction of a Best Animated Feature category, the Academy made a small adjustment to its bylaws that would inject a powerful new variable to the film festival circuit in the years to come.

In 1983, the Academy ruled that in order for a short film to be eligible for one of its three categories — Live Action, Documentary, and Animated — it would either have to receive a theatrical release or participate in a “recognized” film festival. Prior to that point, only a qualifying run would get a short film in the running, which limited the potential of the category to shorts with the resources and industry savvy to get into theaters. But the addition of Oscar-qualifying festivals created a whole new global ecosystem for introducing short films to the Oscar conversation that has grown more prominent in the decades since.

Over 100 festivals worldwide now have official Oscar-qualifying designations tied to specific awards. Major festivals associated with features such as Sundance and Cannes are in the mix, but the list  — which is regularly updated — now includes festivals from France to Australia and Tennessee. (Check out the current list here.) The Academy approves specific awards at each festival that a short must win to qualify for specific categories, and once that happens, it can have a radical impact on the currency of an individual festival with the potential to catapult its program all the way to Oscar night.

“We’ve seen the attention paid to the awards getting much more intense,” said HollyShorts co-founder Daniel Sol, who launched the L.A.-based festival in 2005 and first achieved Oscar-qualifying status for its Grand Prix winner five years ago. “Of course we saw a bump in submissions and the energy around who’s qualifying by winning at the festival has really pushed us forward. It’s gotten more aggressive.”

The impact of that designation quickly proved worthwhile for HollyShorts when the harrowing drama “Skin,” about a Neo-Nazi who faces a shocking comeuppance for his crimes, qualified at the festival and went on to the win the Oscar for Best Live Action Feature Film several months later. “We were very proud of the film,” Sol said. “We were hoping it would go far, but we don’t pay the jury to make its decisions. They unanimously loved the film.”

Oscar-winning short film “Skin”

Now, Sol said that HollyShorts combs through as much as 6,000 shorts each year, and screens around 400 across the 10-day festival. The acceleration of the circuit has stimulated more intricate awards season campaigns after shorts qualify. The programmer cited the 2020 short film “Two Distant Strangers,” co-directed by former “Daily Show” writer Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe, as one key example. The short, which folds the saga of a Black man assaulted by a police officer into a premise right out of “Groundhog Day,” qualified on the festival circuit, ran a major campaign and won the Oscar in 2021. It had already qualified when it played at Holly Shorts but utilized the festival to gain further exposure. Netflix acquired it shortly after the Oscar win. “The amount of money spent on these campaigns is incredible,” Sol said. “You see billboards on Sunset Boulevard for short films. We didn’t see that 10 years ago.”

The growing profile of these categories has attracted more high-profile talent, from last year’s winner “The Long Goodbye,” which qualified out of HollyShorts and stars Riz Ahmed (who also won the Oscar as a producer) to 2020 nominee “The Letter Room,” starring Oscar Isaac. “We’ve certainly seen more A-listers join the Oscar race in the short categories,” said Lili Rodriguez, the artistic director of the Palm Springs International Festival of Short Films. “While it’s wonderful to see more people interested in the form, I hope there’s still plenty of room for filmmakers where getting a nomination in the short form categories could help launch careers.”

“The Long Goodbye”ShortsTV

Rodriguez and her team screen around 350 shorts each year, close to 100 of which have gone on to receive Oscar nominations since its inception 20 years ago. “We don’t approach the programming process any differently because of our Oscar-qualifying status when it concerns choosing the films that make it in the final selection,” she said. “We only take it into account when putting the films into competition.” Among the 23 competitions at the festival, five have Oscar-qualifying status.

Filmmakers who have qualified after winning at the festival include Andrea Arnold, Julia Ducournau, Ava Duvernay, Jason Reitman, Jill Soloway, and Lulu Wang. In 2022 alone, seven alumni of the festival were nominated across all three Oscar categories. “Submissions go up at a steady pace, but the biggest difference is seeing shorts enjoy more mainstream attention in part due to TV anthologies and artists like Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar and Taylor Swift releasing shorts,” Rodriguez said.

Contenders this year describe the experience of achieving qualifying status after winning a festival in the sort of surreal terms one usually hears from actual Oscar nominees. When the animated documentary “More Than I Want to Remember,” which chronicles one woman’s escape from the Congo to the U.S., won its first Oscar-qualifying festival, “I knew that that would mean the opportunity to continue to bring the film to bigger and more widespread audiences,” director Amy Bench said. “I was ecstatic.” For director Victor Gabriel, whose Sundance-premiering short “Hallelujah” tells the story of two Black men suddenly forced to raise their niece and nephew after a tragic event, the Oscar-qualifying moment hit him in even more dramatic terms.

“We had a lack of resources to pull off this short in my backyard,” he said. “Others films have obviously more money put into them and because of that, more time. More time equals higher level and quality of filmmaking, in my opinion. At the same time, I knew the story I was telling was fire, so I was happy with what we had already accomplished. God had different ideas though.”

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