Gkids toons in to arthouse animation

Distrib hones international strategy with Annecy pickups

New York-based distrib Gkids made a big splash at the recent Annecy fest, which drew buyers from around the world looking for the kind of animated art films that are the event’s stock in trade.

Gkids picked up three films for U.S. distribution in as many days at the fest: Joann Sfar’s “The Rabbi’s Cat,” Remi Bezancon and Jean-Christophe Lie’s “Zarafa” and Goro Miyazaki’s “From Up on Poppy Hill,” from Japan’s Studio Ghibli.

That acquisition flurry is the latest sign of GKids’ headlong dive into what founder Eric Beckman sees as an underserved market in the U.S. — lovers of artsy, auteur-driven animation for children and adults.

It’s a market Beckman knows well. He inaugurated the New York Intl. Children’s Film Festival in 1997; the event has been a sellout every year since 2000. He launched Gkids in 2009, targeting the kind of foreign 2D toons the fest frequently features.

With France leading the way, European animation production has bulked up dramatically over the past decade, helping to make Gkids business model a viable one in the U.S. According to France’s Centre National du Cinema et L’image animee, the country produced 10 auteur-driven toons last year, like “A Cat in Paris,” up from three in 2002.

Gkids is planning to distribute 8-10 films a year, “some limited, some wider,” Beckman says. In January, it became the first U.S. indie distrib to net two animated feature Academy Award noms in the same year: Spain’s “Chico & Rita” and France’s “A Cat in Paris.”

A 13-pic Studio Ghibli retrospective that Gkids is distributing, now rolling out across the U.S., is on track to gross $1 million by year-end, Beckman says, and it’s booked solid into 2013.

“There’s an appetite for these types of independent films,” says Nicolas Brigaud-Robert of Paris sales agent Films Distribution, citing “A Cat in Paris,” which he sold to Gkids and almost all major territories. Returns are modest, however. “A Cat in Paris” bowed June 1 in the U.S. on six screens, with a first-weekend gross of $50,129. It expands to 30 screens on June 29.

But with upscale toons able to secure production financing without U.S. distribution already in place, GKids doesn’t have to come onboard via pre-buys. “If films find success in the U.S., that’s a plus,” Beckman says.

Gkids can also save some coin on publicity, relying on good reviews from critics. That kind of attention is not only free, but draws the kind of discerning auds that help solidify Gkids’s brand as a sort of artsy Pixar.

Tim Westcott at IHS Screen Digest notes that Europe’s large supply of 2D animated films have a very different vibe than studio fare, and rely on festival word-of mouth. “Few get U.S. distribution,” he says, “so Gkids can afford to be choosy.”

It’s the potential of 2D animation, moreover, that fascinates Beckman. “We believe in the niche, believe it’s scalable and believe it can grow much larger,” he explains.