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Oscar-nominated animation: An Academy member weighs in on the film’s campaigns

Scene from Oscar-nominated Zootopia / Walt Disney Animation Studios

Oscars Sunday is almost here, and with it comes that time of year that has actors and directors returning to talk shows and press tours to plug last year’s movies, stylists scrambling to find the dress that will make their client stand out (but not too much), and “for your consideration” ads adorning every Hollywood street corner.

But how much impact does the often grueling and costly awards season campaigning actually have on how members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences vote? Here we pose that question to an Oscars voter, taking a closer look specifically at this year’s nominees in the Best Animated Feature category: Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana, My Life as a Zucchini, The Red Turtle, and Zootopia.

Bill Kroyer, a longtime member of the Academy, currently a Governor of the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch, began his animation career in 1975. After working on Disney’s The Fox and the Hound, he found himself in a front row seat of a drastically changing film industry, working on 1982’s TRON as one of the first animators to make the leap to computer animation. And now he’s a leader in the elite body of filmmakers tasked with selecting the best of a diverse group of animated movies: from computer-animated studio projects to a nearly entirely hand-drawn feature with no dialogue.

As for whether “for your consideration” (FYC) ads for those films reach those determining who will take home a coveted statuette Sunday night, Kroyer said that, “Ultimately, it’s a small pool — the Oscar voters pool. So to try to reach that pool through mass media is pretty low-impact.”

Over 6,000 voting members comprise the Academy, and, according to Kroyer, this year’s jury that determined the Animated Feature nominees is a group of about 400 people from a number of branches, including the Designers Branch, the Visual Effects Branch, and Kroyer’s own.

“Obviously, [awards campaigns] target the trades,” continued Kroyer. “But beyond Variety and Hollywood Reporter, the likelihood of an Academy voter seeing a promotional thing drops significantly.”

For a resident of Los Angeles, though, “for your consideration” billboards do feel ubiquitous along major thoroughfares like La Cienega Blvd. and La Brea Ave.

Kroyer bristles at the idea that these paid advertisements could have any influence on those who determine the world’s most desirable film award: “Academy voters — at least my impression of them, is that [they have] an ingrained resistance to being influenced by any of that. And a lot of them intentionally don’t go to any kind of promotional screenings. They try to stick with industry screenings and Academy screenings to maintain neutrality.” However, Kroyer acknowledges that Oscar voters are impacted by press coverage revealing the behind-the-scenes stories of a film’s making. “People are affected by that to some degree,” he noted.

He maintains that since the Academy requires members to see every film nominated in a category for which they’re voting, all nominees get a chance for voters’ awareness. It is an honor system, promising that you’ve seen all the nominated films, but “there is an integrity thing, which everybody's really serious about,” Kroyer said.

This year’s prospects in the category

Whatever the influence of campaigning on Oscar voters, this year’s nominees have some unique challenges and opportunities to promote their films.

Zootopia and Moana have the same team behind them, tasked with supporting both films. There have been many years when Disney-owned Pixar is up against a fellow House of Mouse film in the category. But this year, Pixar’s Finding Dory was shut out, and two films vying for the Oscar are from under the same Sorcerer’s Hat-topped roof in Burbank: Walt Disney Animation Studios.

“Boy, I wouldn't want to be the PR person at Disney for this one. It’s a tough one. It’s like, which child do you love the best?” Kroyer said. “I’m sure they’re afraid that they might cancel each other out in some way. But they’re both such terrific films, and both have such extremely strong fan bases.”

Zootopia appears to be the front-runner, (it won the top prize at the Annie Awards), and it is Zootopia that got a cover wrap ad in Variety, with review blurbs praising the tale of a fox and a rabbit as “a powerful piece of social commentary.”

Meanwhile, Kubo and the Two Strings’ FYC ads highlight the film’s emotional impact, with Facebook and print ads, billboards, and posters at bus stops that declare, “Choose heart. Choose Kubo.”

“If [Kubo wins], I really think the sheer beauty of it is going to have a lot to do with it. I just think the movie looks great, and that's not something you have to be a trained person or know anything about animation — to sit in the theater and see [that] it looks beautiful,” Kroyer observed. “It’s wonderful visuals, and it affects you emotionally.”

The other half of those Kubo FYC ads, though, emphasize the craft of the film: “Choose handcrafted. Choose Kubo,” they proclaim. It’s the fourth feature by Portland’s Phil Knight-backed studio Laika — all of which have been nominated for an Animated Feature Oscar though with none bringing the gold statue home to the Pacific Northwest.

Kubo and the Two Strings brings Laika’s meticulous stop-motion animation to the screen again, but this time with a hybrid approach, weaving in some computer animation, and that’s in part what earned Kubo a second Oscar nomination, for Visual Effects — the first animated movie nominated in the category since 1993 stop-motion The Nightmare Before Christmas.

The team behind Kubo’s campaign has the challenge of communicating that there is digital artistry at work here as well as highly detailed and creative literal handiwork, from hand-stitching tiny robes to laser-etching feathers for a villain’s cape. But Kroyer sees the hybrid approach as an advantage for Laika and distributor Focus Features: “It makes them distinctive from the others. Why wouldn’t you point out the way the film stands out to others?” he said.

The two other films in the category are the ones least known to mainstream American audiences, but Kroyer credits Oscar voters with finding these little-known gems just as the Academy embraced Miyazaki’s Spirited Away when it had been released in only 151 US theaters. The Red Turtle is a French-Japanese animated film with not a word of dialogue, and My Life as a Zucchini, a French-Swiss production, is an odd film that boasts both the silly and the dark.

“It would obviously be tougher for them [to mount campaigns] being smaller films with much smaller PR budgets,” Kroyer said. But he contends that films like Red Turtle and My Life as a Zucchini find their way to Oscar glory because “it’s a point of pride of voters” to discover and celebrate them.

The talent behind the animated feature that will have the biggest cause (or at least the heaviest and most gold) for celebration will take the Dolby Theatre stage when the Oscars telecast airs Sunday, February 26 on ABC.

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