Fest helps advance image of kiddie pics as art

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When Claudio Gubitosi founded the Giffoni Film Festival 40 years ago, kid-friendly programming wasn’t nearly as high profile — or lucrative — as it is today.

Yet Gubitosi, then a teenager himself, believed in it so fervently that he decided to create a film festival in his hometown, Giffoni Valle Piana, near the Amalfi coast. The twist: Youngsters would judge entrants.

In the decades since, family programming has exploded: Franchises such as “Harry Potter,” “Toy Story” and “SpongeBob SquarePants” have shown how much coin studios and networks could mint from programming for kids. Children’s film festivals have sprouted around the globe, with the New York Intl. Children’s Film Festival and Chicago Intl. Children’s Film Festival among the notables; both the Berlin and Toronto fests offer sidebars devoted to youthful fare.

But few of these programs can match Giffoni for its size and scope. Giffoni draws jurors from around the world for a mix of Hollywood and global programming. Its attendance exceeds 100,000.

Giffoni’s success has made it easier to attract high-profile American films. This year, “Marmaduke” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” will screen at the fest. Giffoni has also slated a “Lord of the Rings” marathon this year, and star Elijah Wood will be making a return trip to the fest to present it.

“The name and the credibility of the Giffoni Fest has grown in recent years, and of course this makes it easier to get Hollywood films for our festival,” Gubitosi says.

Gubitosi’s justifiably proud of the fest’s international panel of nearly 3,000 youngsters from 43 countries. “There is no such thing either in the States or in Europe,” he says. In addition to film screenings, the fest lineup includes musical performances and stage shows.

Milos Stehlik, who founded the Chicago Intl. Children’s Film Festival in 1983 to broaden children’s programming in the region, believes that making movies for kids has slowly but surely gained respect as an artistic endeavor. “Little by little, the idea of making films for children has become more respectable as an art form,” says Stehlik, who says today’s films show “a lot more sensitivity and sense of play.”

Stehlik, who runs Facets Multimedia, attributes the increased awareness and appreciation of children’s programming to several factors. The success of “Harry Potter”-style franchises has surely helped, he says, but so has celebrities’ desire to make films their kids could watch (for example, director M. Night Shyamalan pursued “The Last Airbender” because his kids loved the Nickelodeon “Avatar” show).

“It’s part of celebrityhood now,” he says. “They are coming to term with some of these issues.”

His fest focuses on independent fare, but has screened “The Polar Express” in the past.

“Very often the timing isn’t right” for studio films at his annual October fest, Stehlik says.

The fest, which has been growing steadily to last year’s attendance of 27,000 youngsters, mainly draws kids from the Midwest. It skews younger than Giffoni or the Berlin fests, targeting early elementary school grades and preschoolers with its workshops.

“By the time kids in America are 12 or 14, it’s very difficult to capture their attention,” Stehlik says.

The New York Intl. Children’s Film Festival, founded by Eric Beckman and his wife Emily Shapiro in 1997, also concentrates on indie fare. When they started the festival, Beckman notes, there were plenty of indie options for adults, thanks to Miramax and October Films, but fewer options for children outside big Disney movies like “The Lion King” and B movies “skipping to homevideo” like “The Goofy Movie.”

“We saw it as a market opportunity, but also as a cultural endeavor,” Beckman says.

The Gotham fest has scored it share of premieres: It hosted the East Coast premiere of “Ponyo” and U.S. premiere of “The Secret of Kells,” a toon that went on to nab an Oscar nomination. But studios don’t need it for their biggest family pics, Beckman points out.

Beckman has moved into distribution to get more quality children’s films to American auds: His GKids arm picked up U.S. rights to “The Secret of Kells” after “literally every distributor had passed on it.”

Both the problem and opportunity with kids films, Beckman says, are the economies of scale: If a studio movie doesn’t make $150 million at the box office, it’s viewed as a failure. “It’s a tough world with DVD ramping down,” he says.

GKids has released “The Secret of Kells” in 200 markets and has earned almost $1 million at the box office. It debuts on homevid in October.

“Most important to us, it showed a profit,” he says. “And we were able to share that with our European distributors.”

The festival, which wracked up 25,000 paid admissions last year, is also expanding with a San Francisco offshoot.

The best thing about the proliferation in children’s film festivals, Stehlik says, is that the backers are starting to band together on an alternate network for quality children’s films.

“It’s really, really encouraging,” Stehlik says. “If it’s sustainable.”

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