Most audiences (if not all critics) will agree that the film Les Miserables is a powerful, emotional musical with intense performances. Anne Hathaway may well get an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Tom Hooper could get a directing nod. But in the runup to the Oscar nominations this week, it should be noted that one Oscar it won't be nominated for is in the category of "Best Original Musical."
Wait a minute, you're thinking, that's crazy talk -- there's no category called "Best Original Musical" at the Oscars. As a matter of fact, there is such a category, but it's just never been activated.
One reason is that it only applies to truly original musicals, not adaptations of hit Broadway plays. So, Les Miz isn't eligible. Nor were the film adaptations of Chicago, Dreamgirls, Rent, The Producers or Rock of Ages. The key rule is that the film has to have at least five songs originally written for the movie itself. And on most of those film adaptations there's only one or two new original songs (so the films can nab a Best Song nomination).
If you go to the official website of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, look at Rule 15, which also covers Best Song and Best Score. Sitting there under 1.C. is the category of Best Original Musical.
The eligibility rules are fairly arcane:
An original musical consists of not fewer than five original songs (as defined in Paragraph I.B above) by the same writer or team of writers either used as voiceovers or visually performed. Each of these songs must be substantively rendered, clearly audible, intelligible, and must further the storyline of the motion picture. An arbitrary group of songs unessential to the storyline will not be considered eligible.
The final (and most important) rule states that if there aren't enough films that meet the eligibility requirements, then the Academy doesn't activate the category at all. The last (and only) time enough films qualified was for the 2005 Oscars, when five films made the cut, and the rules said three would have been nominated.
I know this because that was the year I directed my original real estate musical film Open House, starring Oscar nominee Sally Kellerman and Rent star Anthony Rapp (and like Lez Miz, we also had the actors sing live on set with piano accompaniment). I heard about the category and I got Trey Parker and Matt Stone to submit their puppet musical Team America: World Police (which had 6 original songs). I'd worked with Neil Young before and got him to submit his film Greendale. And Disney submitted one of their last hand-drawn animated musicals Home on the Range, with music by 8-time Oscar winner Alan Menken.
When we needed one more film to make the required minimum of five, I teamed up with one of my actors from Open House (Robert Peters) and some friends in Germany to shoot Half Empty, an improvised German musical shot while we were attending a film festival with Open House. But of course, we couldn't make it very good -- then it would have taken votes away from Open House. So we had 9 days to make a bad German musical. It was like a real-life version of The Producers.
But the Board of Governors was not eager to give any of us an Oscar: Trey and Matt had shown up in dresses the last time they were nominated. Neil Young didn't show up the last time he'd been nominated. Alan Menken had too many Oscars already. And the budgets of my two films put together didn't add up to the cost of an Oscar gift bag!
So they cancelled the category for that year, and then rewrote the rules making it almost impossible for the category to ever be resusitated.
The rules now state that if there are fewer than nine films, the Music Branch Executive Committee (which usually consists of three people) may recommend that no award be given at all. Furthermore, Rule IV.F. states:
The category of Original Musical may be activated only by special request of the Music Branch Executive Committee to the Board of Governors in a year when the field of eligible submissions is determined to be of sufficient quantity and quality to justify award competition.
In other words, it could be years before anyone ever accepts an Oscar for Best Original Musical. Sorry, Russell Crowe, but we may have to wait another year for you to sing at the Oscars.
See the short documentary about the Best Original Musical campaign of 2005: