Four years before he directed the 1982 blockbuster "An Officer and a Gentleman," Taylor Hackford won an Oscar for "Teenage Father," a short live-action film made for use in high schools. The award launched his career. Without it, he declared last week, "I'm sure I would not be where I am today."
In a move that angered Hackford, other filmmakers and film critics, the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has decided to eliminate the awards for short live-action films and short documentaries. In announcing the decision, the academy said the two awards "have long ceased to reflect the realities of theatrical motion picture exhibition."
The academy added in its statement: "Acknowledging that the two categories have an honorable awards history . . . the board recognized that for the past quarter-century these films have been virtually non-existent in American theaters."
Caught off guard by the board's decision, a number of filmmakers said dropping the short categories will make it harder for newcomers with limited resources to gain visibility in the industry. "The most creative work is often done in the short form," said Jon Wilkman, president of the International Documentary Assn. "For any number of reasons, the younger, fresher talent is working in these forms."
The academy's decision "will discourage this kind of creativity," he said.
Also protesting the decision were the National Society of Film Critics, which called the short films "important avenues for fresh, original filmmaking," and the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.
Wilkman and others said the academy's goal should be to honor excellence, not commercial viability. "I thought it was a short-sighted point of view," said Saul Bass, whose short documentary, "Why Man Creates," earned an Oscar in 1968. "I think it overlooked one of the academy's most important roles: that of nurturing young talent."
Bass, one of the industry's foremost title designers ("The Man With the Golden Arm"), pointed out that many of Hollywood's most famous directors "cut their eye teeth on short film," including George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.
Noting that the recommendation to do away with the two awards came from a committee composed of past presidents of the academy, some critics speculated that old-timers in the organization merely want to streamline the annual Academy Awards presentation on television at the expense of young filmmakers.
"They're trying to make a shorter TV show," said Mitchell Block, president of Direct Cinema, a distributor of short films and documentaries. Bruce Davis, the academy's executive director, said the television show "had nothing to do with the case that the (past) presidents made to the board." In addition to concluding that the categories are obsolete, the former presidents decided that the awards were redundant since the academy also honors student-made films. Those awards, however, are presented at a separate ceremony.
"Does it make sense to give student work the same Oscar that we give a David Lean?" Davis said. "The Pulitzer Prize people don't give promising graduate students the Pulitzer Prize."
But, as Davis acknowledged, not every winner in the short film categories is a student. When she won an Oscar in 1976 for "Number Our Days," a short documentary about elderly Jews in Venice, Lynne Littman was working as a producer at KCET-TV. She had never attended film school.
The Oscar gave her "credibility" when she decided to pursue fiction filmmaking three years later and went on to direct "Testament." She said the academy's action is threatening "a precious form of filmmaking."
"It would be like telling writers not to write short stories because novels are more lucrative," she said. "Why would it have to be an either/or?"
But Davis said the academy's "province is theatrical motion pictures. No one sees these kinds of movies in theaters anymore." He said it is more appropriate for the television industry to honor short films.
Nevertheless, he said, short films were not "savagely attacked" at last week's board meeting. "There was a note of melancholy to the whole presentation." Oscars have been given to live-action short subjects since the 1931-32 award year. Documentary short subjects has been an Oscar category since 1943.
Taking issue with the academy leadership, documentary filmmaker Frieda Lee Mock said a market does exist for short features and non-fiction films. The Imax Theater at the California Museum of Science and Industry has been very successful with these forms, said Mock, who chairs the academy's documentary executive committee, the group that nominates short documentaries.
"I don't think (the board) had the benefit of all the information (needed)," Mock said, adding that she was "shocked" by the decision.
Block, the distributor, also questioned the way the decision was made, without input from the people who will be most affected. "The academy is run as sort of a closed country club," he said. "What they did was incredibly arrogant."