ANNECY, France — Guillermo del Toro, DreamWorks Animation’s Chris DeFaria and Bonnie Arnold and Sony Pictures Animation’s Kristine Belson were among guests at a seated dinner at Annecy’s lake-side Imperial Palace on Tuesday night to celebrate this year’s recipients of the 2017 Mifa & Variety Animation Personality of the Year Award: Eric Beckman, founder of New York’s Gkids, and Marc Bonny, founder of France’s Gebeka Films.
The choice of Beckman and Bonny was hardly made a chance affair. As Bonny remarked, accepting his award, the two are in many ways cousins.
Launched in 2008 but really taking off when David Jesteadt joined the company, Beckman said in his acceptance speech, Gkids is the only independent distributor to have won an Academy Award animated feature nomination. In fact, as a trailer suggested, the films it has distributed in the U.S. have won nine, taking in the Studio Ghibli films, Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey’s “The Secret of Kells,” “A Cat in Paris,” “Chico & Rita,” “Ernest and Celestine” and “My Life as a Zucchini.”
It is no coincidence that Gkids’ second release, “Azur & Asmar,” was by the same French director, Michel Ocelot, whose debut, “Kirikou and the Sorceress,” was Gebeka Films’ second release and first big hit in France. Or that one of Gebeka Films’ early successes – Hayao Miyazaki’s “My Neighbor Totoro,” is a highlight of the Studio Ghibli collection, acquired by Gkids for North American theatrical distribution in 2011.
The awards were preceded by two sizzle reels of acquisitions at both the distribution houses. “The images speak for themselves,” said Mickael Marin, head of Annecy’s MIFA market.
“The prizes also praise your ambition, he added. addressing Beckman and Bonny. “Each one of your productions have been able to affect audiences positively, with your distribution strategies and ambitious editorial line which gives free rein to unique cinema works.”
“It’s really signifiant the two honorees are not only involved in production but especially distribution,” added
Peter Debruge, Variety chief film critic.
“Before Gkids’ launch there really wasn’t a distributor in the U.S. for quality auteur-driven animation films,” he added, recalling Hayao Miyazaki’s “My Neighbor Totoro” had to be distributed in the U.S. by Troma Films.
“It was thanks to the DreamWorks and Pixar revolution, that the market for hand-drawn animation really exploded. Gkids’ nine Oscar nominations have proven what a loss it would have been if Gkids had not stepped in.”
Accepting his award, Beckman recognized the special importance of Annecy for the promotion and export of the upscale international independent animated movies which have become Gkids’ hallmark.
We started coming to Annecy seven years ago. I’d look around and there would be a poster of my film, and, well, there’s another poster and I’d look around and say, wow, there’s [the distinguished French animation director] Jean-François Laguioini having coffee,” he recalled.
“What a wonderful crazy place this is. So it is like the one place in the world where I’m semi-famous and I enjoy coming here,” Beckman joked.
“France’s market is different to the U.S. There’s a real appreciation for small, hand-made auteur-driven films and some of their existence owes to Marc’s involvement,” said Debruge. “A lot of films which fall into the hands of Gkids have passed through your hands first so you are to be equally commended,” Debruge told Bonny.
Also in attendance at the awards dinner for the Variety & Mifa Animation Personality of the Year awards dinner: David Jesteadt, upped to Gkids president this January; Melissa Cobb, COO of Oriental DreamWorks; Jana Day, head of recruitment at Sony Pictures Animation; Jason Sadler, a lead character designer at Blue Sky Studios; and Deb Stone, its manager of recruiting and talent development.