Oscar nod a tall order for short films

When Los Angeles filmmaker Brent Roske arrived for an awards-promotion screening of George Clooney's new movie "The Descendants" on the 20th Century Fox lot in October, his chief concern was where to park.

He found a prime spot right next to the door of the screening room, where it seemed likely everyone entering or leaving could read his car's bumper sticker promoting Roske's own Oscar-qualified film, a seven-minute short called "African Chelsea."

That small awareness-seeking move is typical of Roske's micro-budgeted, kitchen-table based campaign to get his film into the 2012 Oscar race. It's a world away from the electronic billboards and full-page ads promoting studio blockbusters, but it reflects Roske's $5,000 budget and his consuming devotion to self-promotion. In addition to his bumper sticker, the 37-year-old commercial and television director has showcased his short at the Cannes Film Festival, handed out postcards, sent hundreds of emails and wrangled an interview on KTLA-TV's "Sunday Edition."

And he cooperated, eagerly, with this story.

While acknowledging he can come across "like I'm a door-to-door salesman," Roske adds, "without me opening my mouth, nobody would hear about this movie."

Not that it may make any difference to Oscar voters. Special rules governing the short-films nomination process are aimed at ensuring that voters actually see every potential nominee. The result, say those familiar with the process, assures voting influenced more by the quality of the films than the profile of any campaign.

"With short films, [campaigning has] almost zero influence," said Bill Kroyer, longtime member of the academy's short films and feature animation branch (which covers live action and animation shorts but not documentary shorts). "You would be nutty to spend any money [advertising] in any kind of trade paper.… It's never been a cost-effective way to push your short film."

Roske himself acknowledges that although he is confident his publicity push has made "African Chelsea" "definitely the most known" of this year's live-action shorts, he's not sure that will translate into academy votes.

He might know the results of his labors soon. The motion picture academy is expected to pare the 109 Oscar-qualified live-action shorts to six to 10 as early as this week. In January, three to five final nominations will be announced.

"African Chelsea" tells of a struggling Los Angeles exotic dancer (Corinne Becker) in conflict with her mother and protected by a strip-club bouncer. Roske said it's a tale of empathy amid alienation, but he also concedes that the film was conceived as career-boosting Oscar fodder rather than purely as a product of artistic ambition.

"This project was always designed to be an Oscar contender. I didn't make a short just to make a short," he said.

Recent winners of the academy's short-film category who have gone on to feature or prime-time television work include Martin McDonagh, Sean Ellis and Adam Davidson, and Roske, who has been working for 11 years in Los Angeles as a director for hire, wants to move to feature films and prime-time TV.

"I've talked to friends [in the industry], and they're like, 'If you get nominated, then I can make that phone call to my friend who is head of repping directors at the largest agency in Hollywood. If you get nominated, I can pitch you to direct a feature,'" he said.

Roske said his DIY Oscar campaign was inspired in part by the 1987 promotional effort by actress Sally Kirkland for her performance in the film "Anna," which resulted in a lead actress nomination alongside Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Holly Hunter and Cher. Not coincidently, Kirkland plays the mother in "African Chelsea."

"That performance [in 'Anna'] wouldn't have been seen by many people at all without that campaign," Kirkland said.

On the day Roske, Becker and Kirkland appeared on KTLA, Kirkland, 70, organized a pre-interview strategy session at her favorite Beverly Hills restaurant, the Silver Spoon, giving pointers and pretending to be KTLA host Rick Chambers, posing questions to Roske and Becker. Afterward, they returned for a celebratory glass of wine at the restaurant, where the walls are decorated with movie posters, including a signed one for "Anna."

"I didn't realize how invigorating Sally would find it," Roske said. "But she was on fire with enthusiasm."

Even with his limited budget, Roske has hired a publicist for his campaign and taken out paid ads in a few blogs and in print publications such as the Hollywood Reporter. He subscribes to the theory that all publicity is good, so that when columnist Anne Thompson of the website Indiewire took a shot at his self-promotion, he counted it as a plus.

"The interesting thing is that got a lot more traction than all the positive articles that have been written about it. So, well, do I actually send her a thank-you note? She got a ton of attention to the movie," Roske said.

While the academy has some 6,000 members, far fewer are involved in selecting the top six to 10 short films, according to branch member Bob Kurtz, who said the group usually comprises between 50 and 60 members in Los Angeles. To vote for the short lists, branch members must attend an all-day academy screening of the qualified films, which are no longer than 40 minutes and often have qualified with a film festival showing. Regardless of whether a member has learned about a short film from a bumper sticker on the 405 Freeway or an ad on a movie blog, every qualified film will be seen by members creating the short lists. A larger group from the branch in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco then determines the final nominees, and the academy's entire membership is eligible to vote for the winner as long as members can show they've seen the nominated shorts.

The branch's chair, Jon Bloom, said he doesn't think a campaign for a short film can influence its Oscar chances, but he does suggest it can have benefits.

"I do think the so-called campaigning can be beneficial from the career standpoint of the filmmaker or the film.… Potentially that is another benefit: surrounding your nomination with your own publicity," Bloom said.

For Roske, that means that regardless of the outcome of the Oscar race, he will have the estimated 1,000 contacts he's made during his campaign — plus a table at the Silver Spoon. If only the restaurant weren't closing soon.

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