“In France, we have the religion of the auteur,” says Gebeka Films’ Marc Bonny laughing. It explains why his eye for animation looks to the diverse and distinctive — films driven by eccentric minds and brilliant ideas rather than franchises, tie-ins and marketing opportunities. It has been a decade since Bonny first hit on the strategy that has made him a pioneer in the world of crossover animation, starting as a distributor but recently branching out into production, as he did with this year’s Cannes out-of-competition title “Zombillennium.”
Bonny, along with GKids’ Erik Beckman, are the joint recipients of the Mifa & Variety Animation Personality of the Year Award at the Annecy festival.
It began in 1997, with the formation of Gebeka Films. “I wanted to specialize in high-quality films for children,” Bonny recalls. “At that time I thought of distributing both live-action films and animated films, but at the very beginning I had some successes with animated feature films, and … I just loved it! … And at the same time it was proving very difficult for me to find good live-action films for children. So, film by film, I naturally began to specialize in animation.”
Bonny’s background as a distributor, including six years with Fox, trained him well for his new mission. He had handled releases by Pedro Almodovar and Woody Allen, along with the odd “Terminator” or two. The breakthrough came with 1998’s “Kirikou and the Sorceress,” which proved to be a game-changer.
“There were only two of us in the company, and we distributed it throughout France. We reached 1½ million admissions — and there were only two of us, doing everything,” says Bonny.
What was the secret of his success? “The strength of word-of- mouth,” he says decisively. “It was a very small release, with only 50 prints — 35mm, of course, at the time. No trailer, one poster, but no other advertising at all. We opened between ‘Mulan’ and ‘Prince of Egypt,’ it was the first time Disney had competition from DreamWorks, at Christmas. And all the newspaper critics wrote a lot of articles on the struggles between the two companies, and every time they would say, ‘And don’t forget this little film called “Kirikou.”’… It helped us a lot. In France it was quite a revelation to the French film industry, who thought it was not possible to have 1½ million admissions on a French animated film. So ‘Kirikou’ was an event.”
Bonny created a different type of event for last year’s stop-motion project “My Life as a Zucchini,” which made an impact at Cannes. “The film was completed in November , and we had a choice,” he says. “We could go through theaters quickly, or else we had another strategy — to go through festivals, like Cannes of course, and open the film a year after it was completed. Which is quite rare, because people want to get their money back quickly. So we got all the producers together and we told them that the best strategy was to go through festivals, build the film’s reputation that way. And we did it. It worked.”
Although he’s fast becoming a familiar face at Cannes, Bonny is cheerfully ambivalent about the festival’s commitment to animation, pointing out that “some years you have no animated films at all. So no, Cannes is not dedicated to animation. It’s not the main goal of Cannes.”
Nevertheless, it’s likely that he’ll be returning on a regular basis, having not only gained a reputation as a good creative producer but also one willing to take a risk on new and emerging artists.
“Very often I’m involved in the very beginning of the project. Sometimes the script is not yet finished, or it’s at the beginning also of the development of the graphic style. It’s not so easy to say yes when there are so few elements. So we communicate, and I see the projects evolving, and then I have to make a decision. But I don’t want to rush it, because it’s a high risk and I don’t to make a bad film.”
Despite his successes, though, Bonny is not about to forget his roots. “Gebeka is a small company,” he says. “We are four or five people, we take five or six films a year that really interest us and do good work on them. That’s our business.”