Oscars 2014: For 'Mr. Hublot' director, a true surprise, and a real boost

Oscars 2014: For 'Mr. Hublot' director, a true surprise, and a real boost
A scene from Oscar animated short winner "Mr. Hublot."

Sunday night's Oscars were very thin on surprises, which is why many of us were left mainly to discuss pizza deliveries and John Travolta miscues

But there was genuine suspense in the category of animated short, an obscure realm that had bred certainty in pre-ceremony polls (and pools) thanks to the presence of "Get a Horse!," a throwback short produced by Disney. The film was shown ahead of the $400-million-plus-grossing "Frozen," offering an advantage the other nominees could only dream of (those other nominees, needless to say, were watched by a few thousand Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members on screeners, maybe)

Disney also embarked on an un-shorts-like campaign that included an elegant red-and-yellow poster sent to numerous media outlets. (Full disclosure: They hang in a few offices around these parts.)


So when the decidedly French and un-Disney name of "Mr. Hublot" was called at the Dolby Theatre Sunday, there were arched eyebrows in the room and shredded pool sheets everywhere else.

Maybe most surprised was the picture's director and producer, the France- and Luxembourg-dwelling animated filmmaker Laurent Witz. Witz had been toiling in studio spaces in his native Europe for the last few years, well out of Hollywood's sight line. If he wasn't already convinced he had no chance, allegedly knowledgeable insiders had been making sure he had little doubt.

"Many people told me, 'Your film is beautiful but you will never win,'" he recalled Monday. "They said, this was Disney and you can't beat Disney. So I didn't think I could win."

"These were friends," he added of the naysayers.

In a film culture where Oscars mainly help to up the quality of scripts an actor or filmmaker receives — if that — a win for someone like Witz shows the other, more appreciable consequence if the Oscar game, one in which a few extra votes literally spells the difference between a fruitful career in Hollywood and never being heard from again.

"Mr. Hublot" is a work of rarefied whimsy, its focus on a titular, OCD-afflicted man whose prosaic routine begins to change upon the appearance of a robotic dog. Ironically, it is the kind of work an early 20th century Disney would have not only have made, but that its current incarnation arguably was trying to capture with "Get a Horse!"

Witz said his goal was simple: "To create emotion and poetry, and to make a movie on a little budget and pretend it's a big budget."

It is, needless to say, a strong piece. As the Oscar columnist Mark Harris tweeted shortly after Witz took the stage, "Wondering if the win for Mr. Hublot is going to start some ... up trend where awards go to the best nominee." How it won indeed remains a question, though it's safe to say that in a category so far down the ballot there's a somewhat longer odds voters have seen the film, sure, but also smaller odds people are choosing for reasons having to do with politics or affiliation.

Witz, who had mainly worked in French television, spent more than a year raising the $300,000 necessary to make his movie, largely raised from the Luxembourg government. When he finally succeeded in making it, he and co-director Alexandre Espigares then fought the distribution battle all over again; though Web video has given rise to a new kind of viewing, arty shorts are not usually seen much beyond festivals and other niche platforms.

An Oscar win, then, becomes, a key professional achievement and even tool; far from just a feather in a cap, it's the hat, suit and entire outfit.

Still, where this leaves Witz remains to be seen. Shorts filmmakers are already an overlooked group in Hollywood, and foreign practitioners who make silent movies with sentient robotic pets are, well, even less considered.

But there's no platform like an Oscar platform, and Witz is hoping the exposure gives him the credibility he needs to make a feature, especially in a studio system where nearly every major player has beefed up its animation efforts.

Even the nomination had given him a boost, he said -- in six weeks of meetings leading up to the Oscars, he was able to meet with agents, producers and executives thanks in part to the bona fides provided by a spot on the shortlist. After his win, dozens he had met with -- and scores more he hadn't -- reached out to him with congratulatory emails, that particularly Hollywood genre of well-wishing that also implies, "You still free to work together?"

Witz was at LAX on Monday, returning to France, where he hoped to develop his first feature. He said he'd like his new movie to be "set in the universe" of "Mr. Hublot" but other characters would take center stage; the eccentric Hublot and his robot dog could simply, he said, “be guests there.”

The movie, he added, would also have a somewhat different feel than his Oscar-winning shot. "It's hard enough," he said, "making an independent 3-D movie that's not silent."


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