Back in the 1990s, Eric Beckman started the New York Intl. Children’s Film Festival, which gradually grew a reputation for screening the types of independent and international animation that too often went missing next to the macrobudget cartoon hegemony of Disney and DreamWorks.
The fest eventually blossomed into an Oscar-qualifying institution. Yet Beckman was often peppered with questions from festgoers: Where can I see this film again? Where can I find it online? Sensing a vacuum, he and partner David Jesteadt hatched their own distribution company, Gkids, which looked to find homes and craft carefully tailored release strategies for idiosyncratic animated features.
Founded in 2008, Gkids has become a serious name in animation remarkably quickly. It’s gone on to secure nine Oscar nominations for the likes of “Chico and Rita,” “My Life as a Zucchini” and “The Secret of Kells,” and it became the U.S. distributor for Japan’s venerable Studio Ghibli.
Now, Beckman has come full circle, as he looks to inaugurate a Los Angeles-based event, dubbed the Animation Is Film Festival.
“I got the notion maybe three years ago,” Beckman says. “I had noted for years that the U.S. really lacks a big, world-class animation festival. The only thing that stopped me from trying to do one was I know from experience how much work a film festival is, and I had trouble trying to convince my partner Dave to say OK. But then at Toronto last year, we were coming back from some party, and he’d had a couple drinks, so I convinced him that we should do it.
“He said yes,” Beckman remembers with a laugh. “Then in the morning he tried to walk that back, but I held him to it.”
Presented in concert with the Annecy Intl. Animated Film Festival and Variety, Animation Is Film will offer a competition slate of 12 films over three days, beginning Oct. 20, at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, as well as a handful of special presentations — such as a VR component, and an 80th anniversary screening of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” — with a guiding principle that’s encapsulated right in its name.
“I feel like for a number of reasons, unlike live-action films, some of the best animated films haven’t been made yet,” Beckman says. “And a lot of people tend to be very constrained in their thinking about what animation can be. In the U.S., that’s mostly PG-rated comedy made for $80 million. So there’s this wider range of animation, but most people don’t get to go to the animation festivals, so the idea was having a very focused event about having animation as film, in the home of filmmaking.”
The inaugural festival’s slate is heavy on foreign films, and is also geared toward a variety of age ranges, from grade-school-appropriate fare including the world premiere of China’s “Big Fish and Begonia” and the U.S. premiere of Nora Twomey’s Angelina Jolie-produced “The Breadwinner,” to what Beckman calls “more NC-17 material” — the French-Japanese production “Mutafukaz” and Ali Soozandeh’s “Tehran Taboo.”
While a number of the competition films seem right up Gkids’ alley, the fest will also host retrospectives of big studio fare such as “The Lego Batman Movie” and Pixar’s “The Incredibles,” the latter featuring a sneak peek at the studio’s upcoming “Coco.”
Beckman says he isn’t sure why the U.S. doesn’t yet have a big-name animation festival on par with France’s Annecy or Canada’s Ottawa Intl. Animation Festival, though there are certainly plenty of local fests, trade-shows and conventions that draw the faithful. With that in mind, Beckman imagines that narrowing the fest’s focus and keeping the number of films small and selective is the best way to give it an initial identity.
“We see this as a pilot event, so it’s limited in scope,” he says. “Not a big sprawling event like Annecy or Ottawa. Not an event that includes television and video games and commercial animation. Not necessarily a place where animators come to learn about the latest software, network for jobs and find recruiters. But a place where film people can come because maybe they’ve heard of ‘Spirited Away’ or ‘The Secret of Kells’ and they’re aware that there’s this whole other world of animation they’re maybe not familiar with.”
Naturally, having made the transition from festival programmer to distributor himself, Beckman says he hopes films will be sold out of the festival, though he isn’t necessarily looking to establish a full animated film market. “It’s conceived as an audience festival. So [a market] is certainly not a driving interest for me.”
Where he does hope to see the festival expand after its inaugural edition is in including the major studios more heavily, beefing up its educational components, and adding a short film program. He also foresees subsequent years stretching to multiple locations.
Beckman acknowledges that he faces another looming challenge in getting Animation Is Film off the ground: gaining traction for a festival among the notoriously fickle L.A. industry audience. Beckman says he chose the Chinese as a location because “if they can get to the Oscars, they can get here.” Yet he acknowledges that Angelenos can be “a jaded audience. We know that going in, and we’re doing as good a job as we can.”
“But I think having a reason for existing is the most important thing — and this festival does have a very legitimate reason to exist,” he says. “It serves a really strong need in the market, and our hope is people recognize that.”
Just as importantly, Beckman hopes to draw on his years in the festival trenches to simply make the debut event experience as comfortable as possible.
“All the things surrounding the films have to be seamless,” he says. “We’ve been doing that for 20 years out in the New York Children’s Festival, and children’s audiences are notoriously difficult to keep happy — you can’t keep them in the dark too long, or have long bathroom lines, or anything like that. So if we just imagine that all these Hollywood agents are basically third-graders, I think we’re gonna be fine.”
He pauses: “There are certain parallels.”