This underdog company is saving animation and bringing Studio Ghibli to your town

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Oct 20, 2017

The name of the film festival, stretched across posters and on signs at the TCL Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, is as much its founders' driving artistic principle and mission statement as it is event branding. So when the Animation Is Film festival opens on Friday night, it’ll be a declaration more than a mere film screening.

“We wanted a bullhorn right in the middle of L.A. to say, ‘Wake up, people: This is what animation can be,’” Eric Beckman, the founder of the festival, tells SYFY WIRE during a conversation in New York days before the festival. “It's to proselytize a broader, deeper, more thoughtful idea of what animation can be to general audiences, who, through no fault of their own, still think of animation as Saturday morning cartoons and Disney movies, which are both fine things. It just can be more than that.”

Beckman has spent the last decade spreading that gospel, becoming a leading advocate for animated movies that are unlikely to generate theme park rides or toy sales. He has mainly done so through GKids, the independent animation distribution company he co-founded, which has bucked the odds and economic tailwinds to become both a taste-maker and a financial success in a turbulent industry.

Animation has flourished over the last decade, but the boom in production and profits has not been evenly distributed. Major film studios have transitioned to exclusively using computer animation in feature films, many of which are sequels, even at Pixar. Meanwhile, the explosion of TV shows like Family Guy and Rick and Morty-style cartoons has pushed that platform toward faster production of more adult-oriented shows.

In response, GKids has become the pre-eminent American prestige animation label, putting out the sort of animated movies that might otherwise never make it to theaters or, in some cases, the United States altogether. It has also assumed the mantle of caretaker for treasured classics, thanks to a new deal to re-release the entire catalogue of Japan’s Studio Ghibli.

“They’ve really broadened the definition of what animation can be in the United States,” Amid Amidi, an author and the publisher of the leading industry site Cartoon Brew, says. “In the U.S. we always have one flavor of it, which is the big-budget, slickly produced and formulaic approach to the art form. GKids stepped in and said there’s all this amazing stuff going on around the world, and they’ve done their best to try to expose Americans to a wider variety of animation.”

If you're watching hand-drawn animated features with multicultural stories and characters more compelling than talking cars or babbling Minions, you are likely watching a GKids release. Since 2008, GKids has distributed over 40 animated films, and its humble downtown Manhattan office belies the stature the company has achieved in the industry. Over the last nine years, the movies it has licensed have earned nine Oscar nominations for Best Animated Picture, often edging out blockbusters from Pixar and DreamWorks Animation.

In the process, the company has both become a savior to hand-drawn animated features and capitalized on a flooded market that has rewarded hyper-focused niche distributors. It's taken dedication, taste, a lot of good timing, and a willingness to put artistic instincts over financial calculations.

Before starting GKids, Beckman co-ran the New York International Children’s Film Festival, which hosted both animation and live-action films. Over time, that festival became the default launching pad for a many well-regarded foreign animated films, and hosted some of the only stateside screenings of more obscure titles.

Beckman began dabbling in programming beyond NYICFF, at first more as a side passion than serious business. “It's not like we woke up one day and said, ‘How are we going to make money? I know! Independent animation distribution,’" Beckman says, laughing. “So we're in it for some other reason beyond that.”

They started with a live-action short film from India called Tahaan, which the nascent company put out online on its site GKids.tv. Media conglomerates are scrambling to put together their own online programming now, but streaming niche video idea proved a bit too far ahead of its time back in 2008. Beckman then moved on to animation and theatrical distribution, starting with Azur & Asmar: The Princes' Quest, a well-regarded French film that The Weinstein Company had intended to send direct to DVD.

“We sort of begged and kicked and screamed until they gave us the theatrical rights,” Beckman remembers.

Credit: Getty Images

It was more of a practice run, because TWC hung on to the home video rights, which is where the real profit would be generated. And so the infant company had no real budget to promote the movie, which necessitated a DIY, guerrilla approach to spread the word in the very early days of social media. It began with a one-week residency at New York’s IFC Center, which was extended after sell-out screenings, and then continued with a tour of the country that hit around 50 theaters.

“It didn't put up big box-office numbers, but it got really wonderful reviews and got us saying, ‘Oh, this isn't so hard,’” Beckman recalls, again laughing at that early optimism (and maybe naivete).

GKids hit it (relatively) big in 2011 with its first fully licensed movie, Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon’s The Secret of Kells. The lush tale, based on Celtic mythology, made over $600,000 by playing at different points in around 150 theaters (it maxed out at 37 concurrently). The film, from filmmakers Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, was buoyed by glowing reviews and a big-name voice cast, and earned the company’s first Oscar nomination. That generated a glut of press that is exceedingly for a part-time distributor with one real title, and proved a landmark moment. But the next year would be even more important.

GKids shocked the film world — and even its small staff — by garnering two Oscar nominations in 2012, for the Spanish movie Chico & Rita and the French film A Cat in Paris. The traditionally animated foreign-language films beat out blockbusters from Pixar and DreamWorks Animation before even beginning theatrical runs, a testament to both the lure of hand-drawn animation for Academy voters and the hunger for an alternative to big-budget franchises.

“When The Secret of Kells got an Oscar animation, a lot of people thought it was a one-time fluke,” Amidi says. “Then they kept getting the Oscar nominations and it went from 'Look at this nice story' to a lot of the big studios now are, I don’t want to say concerned, but they’re looking at it as GKids taking their slot at the Oscars, because they’re getting one to two nominations a year, and they made it competitive in a way it was never supposed to be.”

When asked about the underdog nomination success, Beckman smiles and shrugs. “I wish I could say we had some unique formula, but I think the bottom line is the films,” he admits. “And I think we do a good job of creating the trailers and ads, and talking to press in a way that lets people understand that this is a film, not just a movie, and that there's a reason that we liked it.”

There’s that distinction again, the firm insistence that animation is film. In 2012, it helped that the difference was obvious, because GKids’ nominated films could not have been more different than many other contenders that year; one was a film noir about a cat, the other was a musical, and neither was in English. Neither, it should be noted, featured a run-down tow truck voiced by Larry the Cable Guy.

“When that happened, we thought, ‘Well, okay, that wasn't a fluke. This is kind of a business, and those films made money for us,’” Beckman remembers, marking it as one of the major events that pushed him to focus on the company full-time, with eight to 10 releases per year. GKids has twice more earned double Oscar nominations, in 2014 (for Song of the Sea and The Tale of Princess Kayuga) and 2015 (Boy in the World and When Marnie Was There). Last year, the company was nominated for the French film My Life as a Zucchini.

That winter was a transformative one for GKids, and not just due to the awards recognition. The company also took over the theatrical rights for the Studio Ghibli catalogue, jumping at the opportunity to follow the exacting standards set out by the legendary Japanese animation outfit and its founder, Hayao Miyazaki. Disney still had the home video rights, which drove the most revenue, but Ghibli valued the theatrical experience most, placing “Kubrickian” specifications on how its movies were exhibited.

“There was this catch-22, where they really wanted them seen in theaters, but there were no 35mm prints, and you had to show it on 35mm print,” says Dave Jesteadt, who was recently elevated from senior VP for distribution to the company’s president. “They asked us if that was something that we would be interested in doing, creating a whole new round of dub and subtitled prints for all of their films.”

Obviously, they said yes, and set to work on satisfying those exacting standards.

The new prints were presented at a theatrical retrospective of 15 titles that ran at New York’s IFC Center from mid-November 2011 to January; the series drew sellout crowds and rave reviews. Disney, which had first brought the movies to the U.S. in the late '90s, had helped foster a new generation of American, and people leapt at the opportunity to see them on the big screen. The event drew national coverage as well.

Saying yes to Ghibli movies was a no-brainer; even when it was just limited theatrical rights, the association was worth its weight in film stock. A few years later, it began to pay off financially, as GKids assumed all rights to some new Ghibli releases, earning Oscar nominations and nice box-office returns for films like From Up on Poppy Hill and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.

Credit: Studio Ghibli/GKids

And that partnership begat something even more valuable this year: full rights to the Ghibli back catalog, upon the expiration of the studio’s deal with Disney. GKids scored home video rights to perennial favorites like Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Howl’s Moving Castle — which, once again, required new transfers, as well as working overtime to enhance the extras coveted by Blu-ray collectors.

“It basically took the entire summer and all 80 hours a week to go through their archives,” Jesteadt says. “We went and found additional bonus features or additional interviews, a lot of times from the Japanese releases. At the time when these titles were first released here, there may not have been that kind of rabid fan culture that was eager to parse every single word that Miyazaki would say, or that the key animator would say. Now, it's like finding new holy works.”

To promote the freshly unearthed epistles, GKids this summer kicked off a monthly theatrical series, dubbed Studio Ghibli Fest, in conjunction with Fathom Events. Screenings of the old Ghibli classics sold out across the country, in 500 to 600 theaters spread between markets big and small, proving both the enduring popularity of that particular brand and the larger interest in hand-drawn animation.

The Blu-rays were released this week, and the screening series is ongoing, which will dovetail nicely with GKids’ newly announced plans for the U.S. release of Mary and the Witch’s Flower. The dreamy adventure about a young student at a magical school — a successful premise if there ever was one — marks the first film from Studio Ponoc, an upstart Japanese outfit formed by Ghibli veterans when that studio went on a production hiatus several years ago. Through Fathom, GKids will put Mary in 600 theaters nationwide for one night in January, and then roll out a more narrow traditional release.

The Mary game plan is sort of a modified limited release, with a big boom of screens followed by a slow expansion that will eventually return the movie to some of the markets that were part of the big opening. It represents a little bit of an experiment for the company, which is grappling, like the rest of the industry, with how to both stand out in a crowded marketplace and best deliver for its hardcore audience. And not every GKids release can benefit from the built-in awareness that comes with Ghibli bloodlines.

Release strategies matter, and we’ll get to that, but as any consultant worth their outrageous fee will tell you, what’s most crucial is building the company’s own brand. And that's going pretty well; Amidi calls GKids the most prestigious animation label in the United States, the company that every foreign animated filmmaker wants to have pick up his or her movie.

Whereas GKid began by nabbing theatrical rights to movies that had already been sold, it’s now quite selective in the films it purchases and backs. Beckman jokes that they mostly base their decisions on whether they like a movie, but that judgment is now coming at a very different stage.

“The majority of our films now, we're aware of very, very early,” Beckman says. “People are pitching us scripts. It's hard to make an animated film in secret, so usually you know stuff is going on. You hear about stuff, you see people at conferences. We go to pitch events like Cartoon Movie, and we're dipping our toes in the water of production ourselves, to start producing and executive-producing stuff.”

Cartoon Saloon’s The Breadwinner represents GKids’ first foray into executive-producing a film from its early stages. The movie, about an Afghani girl who must pose as a man to support her family in the Taliban-controlled country, also has support from Angelina Jolie’s production company, and will be released on Netflix this fall.

The Breadwinner will also get a small theatrical run, both to qualify for awards contention — it was a hit at Toronto and Telluride — and to lay the groundwork for the broader public.

For GKids, some sort of theatrical release is often critical, because putting a movie on the big screen helps it garner reviews and press attention. Streaming services and VOD menus are flooded with cartoons and family-friendly content, so any recognition helps. Plus, catering to hardcore fans in smaller markets goes a long way in engendering loyalty and good word of mouth, so even one-off screenings events for smaller movies have their utility.

Sometimes, those incentives lead to decisions they regret a little bit.

“There's films we released where we said, ‘Why did we put that out? Why did we spend so much effort sticking that in theaters and losing all this money?’” Beckman laughs.

Still, theatrical for GKids is mostly accepted as a loss leader, or a “marketing cost,” as Beckman calls it, because downstream — streaming, Blu-ray, and other licensing — is where the company makes its real money. While physical media sales have slowed across the industry, family-friendly titles have been spared the brunt of that decline, an ongoing blessing to smaller independent animation distributors.

And then there is streaming, which has become the central focus of the industry in the years since GKids first tried putting a short film online a decade ago. Animation has since become one of the main draws of some of the biggest streaming services; Netflix announced this month that it would premiere 30 new anime series next year, while Amazon has whole channels devoted to the form. The company CrunchyRoll has made a massive business out of streaming anime.

Well aware of their prescience, and now the money being made in the sector, Beckman says GKids is looking to return to streaming in some form, though there are no plans solid enough to make public. Jesteadt is a fan of FilmStruck, the curated indie film streaming service, and sees it as a potential model, which would jibe well with GKids’ tastemaker status.

But first is the festival, the ongoing Ghibli releases, and then a fall and winter filled with big releases, from France, Spain, Japan, and the UK. Thanks to their work over the last decade, they have much more work to do, and a lot more people ready to embrace it. “There's this dawning of awareness of a larger world of animation,” Beckman says. “We're very excited.”