BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., Dec. 12 (UPI) -- The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announced Wednesday that an Oscar will be presented for the first time next March for the best feature-length animated picture -- the first new Oscar category in more than 20 years.
The Academy Board of Governors created the best animated feature category in September, stipulating that at least eight films would have to qualify in order for the award to be presented in a given year.
This year, nine pictures -- either entirely animated or featuring a substantial amount of animation combined with live-action -- were declared eligible to compete by the Academy's executive committee of the Short Films and Feature Animation branch.
They are: "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within"; "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius"; "Marco Polo: Return to Xanadu"; "Monsters, Inc."; "Osmosis Jones"; "The Prince of Light"; "Shrek"; "The Trumpet of the Swan" and "Waking Life."
"Monsters, Inc." and "Shrek" -- two of the biggest box-office hits of 2001 -- are widely regarded as leading contenders for a nomination in the new category.
A 100-member screening committee chaired by Academy Gov. Tom Hanks will decide on three nominees after viewing the nine eligible pictures. Half of the committee's members will be animators, and half will be members of the Academy's other 13 branches.
The nominees will be announced Feb. 12, 2002, along with the rest of this year's Academy Award nominees.
The eligibility of "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius" and "Marco Polo: Return to Xanadu" is contingent on their opening in Los Angeles prior to Dec. 31. "Jimmy Neutron" is scheduled to open Dec. 21 and "Marco Polo" on Dec. 22.
Academy President Frank Pierson said the award is intended to honor not just the animation in a movie, but the movie as a whole -- including the screenplay, performances, music score and other elements of production.
Films submitted for best animated feature may also qualify for Academy Awards in other areas, including best picture.
The Academy has honored animated movies in the past, presenting an honorary Oscar to Walt Disney in 1938 for "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," and a special achievement Oscar to "Toy Story" director John Lasseter in 1995. "Beauty and the Beast" was nominated for best picture in 1991.
Animated movies have received regular Oscars for editing, visual effects, song and score.
The last time the Academy established a new award category was 1981, when the first Oscar was presented for makeup. Rick Baker won the award for "An American Werewolf in London."
The 74th Annual Academy Awards will be presented March 24, 2002 at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, in ceremonies to be telecast live over ABC-TV.