Sometimes you just have to put your money where your mouth is.
Earlier this year, the New York International Children’s Film Festival (NYICFF) hosted the U.S. debut of the film “The Secret of Kells.” A true international production, the film was directed by a young Irishman named Tomm Moore and produced by a young studio named Cartoon Saloon (for more on the movie, click here.
At that time, the movie was supposed to be distributed by The Empire Film Group. For whatever reasons, it is now being handled by the NYICFF’s parent company, GKids, Inc. “Kells” will screen on December 4 in Los Angeles’ AMC Burbank Town Center 8 so it can get Oscar consideration. It will then go national this March.
This is a bold new step for GKids. Through the Gotham-based NYICFF it has brought over many of the finest animated films the U.S. rarely, if ever, gets to see. This has included many films by Hayao Miyazaki, Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Steamboy,” the incredible work of Michel Ocelot and Nina Paley’s “Sita Sings the Blues.” Those wonderful maniacs at Aardman once made a special appearance to not only plug their works, but give kids tips on stop motion animation. Its members include such cinematic renegades as Susan Sarandon, Gus van Sant, Robert Minkoff, John Torturro and film historian and producer James Schamus. Founded in 1997, it has aired over 1,100 short and full-length feature films, both animated and live action.
Newsarama sat down with founder and president Erik Beckman about this latest development. Here’s what he had to say:
NEWSARAMA: What is it about "The Secret of Kells" that makes you want to distribute it?
Erik Beckman: It works for me on a few levels. First and foremost, it’s beautiful to look at. The lushness of the animation makes it a very unique film. It’s different from anything you’ve seen. There’s way they tie-in Celtic mythology and illuminated manuscripts. It certainly deserves to be distributed in the U.S.
In terms of the New York International Children’s Film Festival, which I admit we run, it was just a standout film when compared to the number of films we’ve seen every year.
Nrama: How did it do?
Beckman: We didn’t do it during the Film Festival. We did it as a special event so we could provide its U.S. premiere. We did two screenings and the audience response was over the top.
Nrama: What can you tell me about Tomm Moore’s studio?
Beckman: I’d rather put you in touch with Thom. He can speak about it much more intelligently. I don’t want to.
What I do know is they did great work on this production. It was a co-production with other financiers and production companies. They also have another amazing film in the works called “Song of the Sea.” If you go to their website, there’s a preview of it and it’s also beautiful.
Nrama: One thing I have to say is it covers some pretty dark themes for kids; the Dark Ages, barbarism, death, religion and things of that nature.
Beckman: That again fits in with the idea that’s the center of the Festival and GKids. The typical conventional wisdom about film and young people is there’s a something called films for young persons, which is different than films for adults. I might challenge that. I think there are also some pretty important filmmakers who would challenge that.
The second is children want simple stories with goofy sidekick characters and happy endings. My experience in showing a huge assortment of crazy films from all over the world and on all kinds of subject matter is young people are in fact very open to new experience and don’t have preconceived notions. Much of the conventional wisdom people told me, such as kids won’t read subtitles and only like happy endings, are just plain false.
This is the long way of saying that ‘The Secret of Kells’ does have some interesting subject matter. It does deal with the power of imagination and the power to overcome darkness. It’s not a gruesome film, but I imagine it will be a PG, not a G rating. It doesn’t assume its audience wants a cookie cutter, pre-digested type of experience. It helps people experience the depths of good filmmaking. In many ways, it’s like the films of Hayao Miyazaki or Michel Ocelot, which work on multiple levels. Kids get that.
Even if kids don’t grasp every subtlety of a film, the filmmakers are usually smart enough to realize that their audience can grasp what they’re doing. There’s this idea that cinema is not just a commercial medium but also a medium for art, not just craft, and many times the kids understand that the filmmaker is saying something. How are they saying it? Are they assuming their audience is sophisticated enough to grasp these larger concepts? Is it a film that provokes thought and conversation? Those are the kind of films I like to watch as an adult, and I’m seeing kids and their families are saying these are the films they want to see. They just don’t want to go and see ‘Alvin & The Chipmunks 2.’
Nrama: I think there are American films that do fit that bill. I think the latest one was ‘Coraline.’
Beckman: ‘Coraline’ was a beautiful film. I think there’s a recent trend of films that work in a way that says it isn’t an adult or kid film. Now the people who marketed ‘Coraline’ did do it towards an adult market, and rightfully so. They knew they were going to pick up some kids. We did the same thing with ‘Azur & Asmar,’ which we knew art house animation fans as well as families would enjoy. Ditto with ‘Kells.’ Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘Spirited Away’ works on multiple levels. I think ‘WALL*E’ is one of the most brilliant films out of Hollywood that I can remember. It has more in common with ‘2001’ than it does with ‘Toy Story.’
There’s an opportunity on the distribution side, as I see it, to put out a number of amazing films that audiences are hungry to see. Parents want to do things with their kids. Animation fans are starving for more good animated films, even if they don’t have kids. There are films that don’t make $150 million at the box office but are still financially successful. We are very interested in bringing those films.
Nrama: Now is this your first endeavor in distribution?
Beckman: Our first effort was ‘Azur & Asmar,’ which we just handled theatrical for. The second we did was Nina Paley’s ‘Sita Sings the Blues,’ we did that in partnership with Shadow Distribution. Now we have a whole slate of films. Some will have more traditional distribution strategies. Others will have more innovative releases.
It’s hard to get a film on 3,000 screens without having a $100 million budget. As much as we can do a pull distribution, that’s where people find out about the film and then ask a theater to screen it, to digital distribution, which will start happening in an increasing number of theaters, we are very, very, very interested in creating grassroots support.
Nrama: Overall, I take it "Secret of Kells" is not the last film you’re doing. It sounds like you have a number of them in the works.
Beckman: There are two kinds of films that we will be distributing. The first are these beautifully rendered, artist-driven animated films that we feel will appeal to both young audiences and old. They will appeal to anyone who loves cinema, especially animators and art house audiences. At the same time, they are also family films. The others are live action films, both documentary or narrative, that deal with the youth experience. You can go to our website to see what they are.
We’re here to stay. The next film we are licensing is another animated film called ‘Mia and the Migoo,’ by Jacques-Remy Girerd. That’s the film we premiered at the last Festival and will be brought over here by Celluloid Dreams. We will also be casting in English and releasing the sequel to ‘Secret of Kells’ in 2010.
So we’re here. We’re a new distribution company who will be identified as providing films for both kids and adults.