Gone Global: GKIDS brings the whole world of animation to North American theatres

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There’s a bit of a David and Goliath story to be found in the world of animation. Two guesses on who the Goliath is—it rhymes with “Bisney” and can frequently be found sporting mouse ears and canoodling with its buddy, uh, “Blixar.” In the scrappy-underdog corner is the indie animation outfit GKIDS, which has the goal, in the words of CEO, president and founder Eric Beckman, of “redefining what people think of when they think of animation.”

Ambitious? Sure. But GKIDS, with their slate of emotionally evocative, hand-drawn films standing in for a slingshot—I’ll admit, this metaphor may be getting away from me—has more than proven their ability to market and distribute films that both critics and audiences alike respond to, despite, Beckman says, an “advertising budget [that] isn’t a hundredth of what other studios are spending on their animation pictures.”

“But that hasn’t seemed to hamper us that much,” he continues. “Because, at the end of the day, the films are good.”

The Secret of Kells. A Cat in Paris. Chico & Rita. Ernest & CelestineThe Tale of Princess KaguyaSong of the Sea. In under ten years of operation, that’s six Oscar nominations for GKIDS releases, fewer only than Disney/Pixar itself. Beckman may reject the David vs. Goliath metaphor—self-described as “agnostic in terms of [animation] technique,” he clarifies that he’s not “anti-CG, at all,” and it’s perfectly clear that neither he nor GKIDS as a whole either consider Disney an evil giant nor want to bring it tumbling down—but the appeal of a company that releases small-budget, often international films carving out a niche for itself in an industry ruled by billion-dollar conglomerates is hard to deny.

With half a dozen Oscar nominations has come a certain amount of prestige in the animation world. In GKIDS’ early years, explains senior VP of distribution Dave Jesteadt, “we would really have to pitch ourselves hard in terms of why we might be better than a conventional specialty distributor for a title,” whereas now directors feel that going with GKIDS will make them “part of an awards conversation.”

Potentially joining the awards conversation this year are three 2015 GKIDS releases eligible for the 2016 Best Animated Feature category: Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, which features segments by GKIDS alumni Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea), Nina Paley (Sita Sings the Blues) and Joann Sfar (The Rabbi’s Cat); When Marnie Was There, from legendary Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli, which partners with GKIDS for North American distribution; and Boy and the World, director Alê Abreu’s breathtaking film about a young boy traveling through Brazil in search of his father.

Currently in theatres in limited release, Boy will expand to additional markets throughout 2016, hopefully buoyed by an Oscar nomination come January 14. Though the animation world is typically quite insular, with GKIDS made aware of a good chunk of potential acquisitions while the films are still in production, Boy was “one that hadn’t been on our radar until it was actually complete,” Beckman explains. “It blew us all away here. I think it’s going to be seen for decades to come.”

Boy is a Brazilian film. Kells and Song of the Sea are both Irish. Chico & Rita represents Cuba, Zarafa is about a young Sudanese boy, Studio Ghibli is synonymous with Japanese animation, and 2016 GKIDS releases hail from France (April and the Extraordinary World, Phantom Boy) and South Korea (The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow). “More and more, animation is being made for international markets,” Beckman explains, adding that “there’s a huge creative range of what’s being done in animation” in general, including in short films, “where the risks are lower and the types of artistic expression are much wider. The kinds of films that Hollywood tends to make are these PG, very large-budget comedies. And many of them are wonderful pictures, but that’s a very narrow focus. There’s a huge range of cinematic possibilities for the medium.” The secret to bringing all of these diverse gems together under the GKIDS banner, he notes, is “casting a wide net, understanding what’s going on in other countries, and being open to the wider idea of animation.”

That “wider idea of animation” might not yield Disney-sized grosses, but that’s not something GKIDS is concerned about; though Beckman admits that GKIDS “isn’t a nonprofit…and I get great satisfaction when large royalty checks arrive in the mail,” he argues that “at the end of the day, if this was strictly about making money, there are easier, more predictable ways to do that than the road we’ve chosen. I get huge satisfaction from sharing a film that I really love with other people and having them appreciate the film in the same way I originally did. Princess Kaguya is a film that affected me very deeply and that I had a very strong emotional reaction to. I probably got more satisfaction out of reading the reviews and audience reactions for that film than I did out of how much money we made on it.”

Jesteadt concurs: “You can’t release too many critically acclaimed flops, but it is really satisfying to see an audience and journalists respond to some of the same things that we love about a film.” And—though the cynics among our readership might disagree—it’s the belief at GKIDS that quality always reigns supreme; no amount of marketing moolah can assure box-office success for a bad movie. “Maybe for the first weekend [of wide release], you can sell it on spectacle alone,” Jesteadt says. But increased social-media usage means these turkeys can’t hide for long; if a film is awful, you can be damn sure that people will Tweet about it. The converse works in GKIDS’ favor, with positive word of mouth doing a lot of the heavy lifting that would otherwise be the responsibility of PR and advertising. (GKIDS does that too, of course, just to a lesser extent than your big studios.)

Says Jesteadt, “One of the great joys has been watching films that previously only played in specialty cinemas, maybe twenty or fifty big urban markets, now suddenly become top-ten streaming titles and enjoyed on a massive scale, just like you would expect for a big studio film,” largely as a result of positive buzz. Home-video success, in turn, helps get the ever-coveted butts in seats. For a case study, Jesteadt offers up Tomm Moore’s two films: “[The Secret of Kells] had a second life on DVD and Netflix. So when Tomm came along with Song of the Sea, there was a whole audience well beyond people who saw Kells in the theatre, although it had a good theatrical run as well, who were really eager to see what he would be doing next.”

GKIDS isn’t immune from the difficulties faced by the theatrical distribution market; Beckman admits that that angle has gotten “more difficult” since GKIDS’ founding in 2008, though on the positive side they’ve remained relatively untouched by the decrease in DVD and Blu-ray sales that has affected much of the rest of the industry. Though the importance of digital platforms like Amazon Prime and Netflix to GKIDS’ bottom line has increased, Beckman contends that “the theatrical component to what we do has been”—and remains—“super-important.” Not least because filmmakers want to see their films on the big screen, with audiences reacting to their vision in a communal environment instead of alone with their laptops. “A lot of times we’re bidding for a film, and the other company that’s bidding for it is mostly going to stick it on home video or sell it digitally. And so the chance for a real theatrical release and people to see it on a forty-foot screen is hugely beneficial. It’s been a huge part of how we’ve added value to these films. And our partners on the exhibition side have been incredibly crucial to that.”

Those partners include both multiplex theatres and your more art-house-style outfits. Regarding the former group, if buyers are “willing to go to bat for a movie that they feel strongly about but they’re not quite sure how it will perform, then that’s one of the benefits of having 12 or 24 screens. There’s always going to be a spot in your multiplex to play it if you want to see how it does and develop that,” says Jesteadt.

On the other hand, he notes a feeling among some art-house exhibitors that animation “is something that is only for a wide release, Disney film…something that exists outside of the [art-house] ecosystem.” But many art houses, like the IFC Center in New York, do take the chance, even if GKIDS releases are often the only animation they screen. “It’s been really great to go to these cinemas opening weekend with the directors and see a really diverse audience,” Jesteadt says. “You see families there, beginning to discover something that is new and thoughtful. You see your more standard, slightly older art-house audiences there, curious about something that was really well-reviewed, or they just enjoyed the trailer. I think it’s really helped widen the debate around what your typical art-house film is, and how a genre that’s predominantly associated with families can integrate into this discussion and be part of a really vital film culture.”