Rescue efforts get big reward

Eye on the Oscars: Animation

Of the five animated feature nominees competing for Oscar this season, three were released by major studios (“Kung Fu Panda 2,” “Puss in Boots” and “Rango”). The other two, fanciful children’s fable “A Cat in Paris” and Cuba-based jazz romance “Chico & Rita,” hail from GKids/Luma Films, a small outfit that plays David to the majors’ Goliath.

When Eric Beckman launched GKids, Academy recognition was never part of the plan. Instead, he was impelled by how many great toons were going unreleased in the States — a fact he knew intimately well, as founder of the New York Intl. Children’s Film Festival.

“One day, I opened up the Friday Times and counted every single film playing in New York,” Beckman recalls. “Out of 90 to 100 films, there was just one for kids — and that seemed wrong.”

In response, Beckman, who had worked as an agent and ran an international concert promotion company, launched NYICFF in 1997, creating one of the largest youth-focused sprocket operas in the world. The event draws nearly 20,000 attendees each year.

Still, despite showcasing hundreds of movies, many of Beckman’s favorites failed to land deals for theatrical release. (Except for Sony Pictures Classics, which backed such adult-focused toons as “Persepolis” and “The Illusionist,” few distribs will gamble on foreign or indie animation in the States.) So, in 2009, Beckman formed GKids to rescue such treasures from oblivion.

GKids’ distribution business started cautiously. In 2009, GKids partnered with the Weinstein Co. for its first film, Michel Ocelot’s “Azur & Asmar,” which had premiered at NYICFF. TWC retained DVD rights, while GKids limited itself to theatrical. According to Beckman, that film taught them how to open a film in many markets and attract good reviews while operating on a micro-budget. Next, GKids released “Sita Sings the Blues” — after director Nina Paley had already made the film available for free on a Creative Commons license.

After those test cases, GKids unexpectedly found itself in the awards conversation with its 2010 theatrical release of Tomm Moore’s “The Secret of Kells,” a film Beckman had been following since its U.S. premiere at NYICFF in 2009. “Kells” surprised many with its Oscar nom — but not Beckman.

“I was confident in the way any delusional entrepreneur is confident, but man, a lot of people were happy that day,” Beckman recalls.

Continuing to champion orphans, in March, GKids released “Mia and the Migoo,” which had won the European Film Awards’ top toon prize for 2009 (but was deemed too old to compete for Oscar this season). Later that year, GKids acquired the rights to both “Chico & Rita” and “A Cat in Paris.”

For “Chico,” which opens Feb. 10 after a brief qualifying run last December, Beckman had been pursuing the producers since the film’s premiere at the 2010 Telluride film festival. They finally agreed to distribute the film through GKids’ sister banner, Luma Films, which will handle animated films for adult audiences. (“Chico,” an epic romance centering on a Cuban pianist’s love for a singer in pre-Castro Havana, includes lovemaking scenes not usually seen in children’s films.)

GKids snagged “A Cat in Paris” after the film’s producer, Jacques-Remy Girard (who also produced “Mia”), offered Beckman a sneak peek at a special Pixar-hosted event.

“He pulls a DVD out of his pocket and asks if we want to see the first 10 minutes of his new movie,” Beckman says. “I was completely blown away, and from that moment, even though the movie was not yet complete, we started a conversation about having it here.”

GKids bought “A Cat in Paris” before it premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. At the 2011 NYICFF, the French toon became the highest-selling film in the festival’s history. GKids plans to release it this summer.

“We could have sold tickets to it forever; people absolutely loved it,” he says.

Now that GKids/Luma has successfully led three independent films to Academy Awards nominations, Beckman is certain of one thing: They will continue to focus on the same sort of intelligent, lovingly made animated films.

In the company’s most recent effort, GKids entered into an agreement with Studio Ghibli for the theatrical rights to 13 of the Japanese animation studio’s movies, including “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Princess Mononoke,” and “Spirited Away,” which won the toon Oscar. Disney also made “Ponyo” and “Howl’s Moving Castle” available for GKids’ traveling retro-spective, now touring major cities in the U.S. and Canada.

Whether dealing with an animation master like Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki or an under-the radar artist, Beckman says, “What drives us is that there’s room and a need in the U.S. for these films, and we want to give them a home and an audience.”

Rescue efforts get big reward
The Nominees:
“A Cat in Paris” | “Chico & Rita” | “Kung Fu Panda 2” | “Puss in Boots” | “Rango”
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