By Dan Mirvish | March 4, 2010

As word breaks that “The Hurt Locker” producer Nicolas Chartier is being banned from the Oscars for simply sending an email to a few friends that suggests that “Avatar” had a big budget (I thought that was high praise by Hollywood standards?), it’s worth wondering what all the fuss is about. That’s an Oscar campaign!?! Hardly. If you want to see a REAL Oscar campaign you need look no further than what happened in the leadup to the 2005 Oscar for Best Original Musical.

Best Original Musical. What? Never heard of it? Doesn’t exist? You’re crazy! Not exactly.

You see, under Rule 16 (Ia) of the Academy Awards, there really is a category called “Best Original Musical.” But the reason most people haven’t heard of it is because the Academy has never activated the category. You see, the eligibility requirements are bizarrely stringent for what the Academy considers an Original Musical: It can’t be based on a stage play (so much for “Nine,” “Dreamgirls” or “Chicago”). It can’t be based on pre-existing music (“Moulin Rouge” wouldn’t have counted). And according to the rules as they are now, there have to be at least nine of these movies in any one year before the Academy even considers activating the category (so much for “Crazy Heart” or “Princess and the Frog” this year).

The closest the Academy came to activating the category was five years ago when at the time, the rules stated there only needed to be five eligible films, and then three would get nominated. I know this because I had directed a movie that year that actually met all the necessary requirements – a little independent real estate musical called “Open House.” I recruited three other films, the South Park guys’ puppet spoof “Team America,” Disney’s animated “Home on the Range” and Neil Young’s obscure “Greendale.” But we needed another eligible film. So I teamed up with some fellow filmmakers, went to Germany (why not?) and shot another movie musical in ten days, ultimately to be called “Half Empty.”

All five films were submitted on time, and all met every nuanced rule of the Academy. But when the Board of Governors found out that the Music Branch had a category on the books even they hadn’t heard of, they blithely canceled the category for that year, and changed the rule to the next-to-impossible requirement for nine films that stands now. I’ve just posted a two-part documentary that gives the full story:

Why bother having the category at all is still a mystery. The Academy Awards has always had a love-hate relationship with its own Music Branch (this year’s controversy is that the full songs won’t be performed on stage). But before people lament the loss of those song and dance performances themselves, it’s worth shedding a tear or two for the category that they’ve never even heard of: Best Original Musical. And before the Academy becomes such sticklers for the rules for poor Nicolas Chartier, they might want to remember how cavalierly they disregarded those same rules when it suited their own interests.

Dan Mirvish is a filmmaker and co-founder of the Slamdance Film Festival. He also co-wrote the book “I Am Martin Eisentadt: One Man’s (wildly inappropriate) Adventures with the Last Republicans” which is currently being developed for television.

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