Since the introduction of the Best Animated Feature Academy Award in 2001, the category has been dominated by Happy Meal-friendly blockbusters like Shrek, Frozen, and Brave. For the last several years, however, Oscar viewers have gotten a glimpse at something radically different: foreign films with innovative visual styles, auteurist sensibilities and Rotten Tomatoes scores in the high 90’s, if not 100. They’re also almost always distributed by GKIDS, a small New York-based company that is, against all odds, celebrating its 9th Oscar nomination since 2009. Though it has yet to take home a statue, the company can be credited with giving most Oscar viewers their first look ranging from the Celtic fantasy The Secret of Kells to recent Studio Ghibli fare like The Tale of the Princess Kaguya to this year’s nominee, My Life as a Zucchini, a French-Swiss stop motion masterpiece that plays like a combination of The 400 Blows, Short Term 12, and Paranorman. After opening the New York International Children’s Film Festival on February 24th with an English-language dub featuring Will Forte, Ellen Page, and Nick Offerman, the film will be released (in both languages) in New York and Los Angeles before a nationwide rollout in March. We spoke to newly promoted GKIDS President David Jesteadt (who also happens to be the company’s first employee) about the company’s evolving philosophy, its place in the animation ecosystem, and its relationship with the legendary Studio Ghibli.
What was the original impetus for starting GKIDS? How has the company evolved since then?
When [CEO and Founder] Eric Beckman started GKIDS back in 2007, he was running the New York International Children’s Film Festival, which is the largest festival for kids and teens in North America. They would get all these sold-out crowds and present a great lineup of cinema during their annual March event, but then they would have audiences come up after a screening and say, “I want to tell my friends about this movie! Where can they see it?” And the answer was nowhere because the film festival circuit is a rather small thing, and, to this day, a lot of foreign independent kids cinema is underrepresented by the major distribution companies. When we started, GKIDS was a way to distribute the films the festival was showing to a wider audience. After a year or two of exploring various concepts, we settled on doing an animation-only approach because animation, of all the foreign independent cinema, is the easiest to localize, and when it works, it really works in terms of finding a commercial audience. There may always be certain ceilings in place for subtitled live action kids films, but for animation, especially if you dub it into English, a lot of those barriers disappear. After a year or two, we dropped the idea that it was just family films from our mission, so even though we’re still very much focused on kids and family as one of the main audiences for a lot of our films, we also do release a number of animated films for adults.
Even though you’re distributing movies for adults, have you felt held back by your company’s name?
I’ve always just imagined that we’ll keep plugging ahead until the “kids” becomes just a part of the company title. It’s definitely something I think we struggle a little bit with on the adult side, but I think the only way we can really get through that is by constantly releasing the films we like. We actually have a number of adult focused films coming out this year. When you work in a niche like animation, you’re presented with whatever films that filmmakers have decided to make around the world and last year, when we were picking up films, there just happened to be a really great crop of really beautiful, evocative and stirring films for largely adult audiences. We have the adult fairy tale The Girl Without Hands, which is based on a Brothers Grimm Story. Then, there’s My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, which is our April release and is kind of a hipster comedy starring Jason Schwartzman and Lena Dunham and directed by Dash Shaw. We try to be rather varied in the kind of films that we handle. Thankfully, filmmakers like Dash were willing to trust that we don’t just do kids stuff when we take on our films.
The anime business in the United States is essentially made up of a few well-established companies handling just about every series coming from Japan. You sometimes distribute Japanese animated films, so how do you try to fit within that ecosystem?
Basically, by setting some boundaries for ourselves. We don’t really get involved in TV series or OVAs, stuff based on previous properties, just because those companies have such a die-hard audience. If there’s a new Dragon Ball film out there, why on earth would I do it unless something seriously happened in terms of the rights transfer or something? I think where we can provide value is some great standalone anime films that are created outside of existing intellectual property. For us, it’s tricky, having these competitors who have so much experience in this space, but if we lay claim to being the company for independent and foreign animation, it would be weird to not have any Japanese anime in the portfolio. Obviously, I think Studio Ghibli is probably the best-known company in that space, and we’re thrilled to partner with them, but we also have other standalone films like Patema Inverted and Welcome to the Space Show that are really unique ideas that deserve to be in theaters.
At what point in the company’s development did you feel that GKIDS was starting to make a real impact on the industry?
The Secret of Kells was definitely our breakthrough film. It was our first Oscar nomination. Obviously, I’m really gratified with every nomination we get, but there’s no replacing that very first time. And that film also managed to break through on the arthouse circuit and then, on home video, it continued to do well. That was the moment when I think everything started to click. Up until then, we were relatively small, but I think we’re on equal footing now with other independent distributors in terms of being able to say with a straight face that we have the resources, the marketing power, the plan, and the right partners to get a film as large as anyone else and to do right by it. In a lot of ways, Secret of Kells provided that blueprint. And from then, every film we work with, we’ve been really happy to have second and third films from filmmakers who we worked with on their first films. And as we continue in business and as these people keep making their films, I think our catalogue grows stronger. We may not have been the first choice for the first film, but we are the first choice for the second film because they were so thrilled by what we were able to do with them.
You have the North American theatrical rights to the Studio Ghibli catalog, which is a pretty huge get for an independent distributor. How did you make that happen?
Studio Ghibli is one of our most treasured partners. As a fan, I grew up watching Totoro on VHS, so that was always a very formative influence. And I saw Princess Mononoke in theaters when it was originally released. There are a lot of memories there. They actually initiated the relationship with GKIDS because the New York International Children’s Film Festival had been the first festival to play Ghibli films in a serious way, starting back in 2000 or 2001. One of the crazy things that people forget is how recently Ghibli has become universally revered as a titan in the industry. As early as 20 years ago, a lot of these films were being released by genre film distributors. Through playing the films at the Children’s Festival, we got to know the folks who handle Ghibli’s international relations. Once we started our distribution arm through GKIDS, they approached us with the opportunity to distribute their films theatrically. Disney still represents a lot of their films on home video to this day, but Ghibli has always been keen on having people see their films on the big screen. Having them on VHS or DVD was always a weird compromise they made for commercial reasons because Miyazaki would rather you didn’t watch his movies over and over again. They’re meant to be seen once in a theater and that’s it. They wanted them back in rotation and Disney was such a size and scale at that point that it would be hard to get films through at the small arthouse scale and have that kind of attention within a company built to make billion dollar films.
Where are you getting the subtitles and dub scripts for your foreign language films? Are they done in-house?
Subtitles are often inherited. The producers will work with the sales agents, and we’ll get an accepted translation. Obviously, Studio Ghibli vets their subtitles extremely vigorously, so we don’t mess with that at all. But in other cases, if it’s a really small film and they just commissioned a translation and it’s not quite perfect, we’ll go in and try to fix the grammar and things like that. But generally, I would say that we don’t mess with the subtitles too much because they’re supposed to be an approximation of what the director intended. On the script side, too, the scripts are largely written by NYAV Post, which is the production company we work with for almost all of our dubs. But between Studio Ghibli, who wants you to view their dubs so you can focus on the artwork and us who put hundreds of hours into arguing over word choice, fidelity to the project is always at the top of people’s minds.
As your company has grown in size and prominence, how has your acquisitions strategy changed?
Very early on, a year or two into our existence, our acquisition strategy was always to wait in our New York basement office until Cannes ended, and then we’d wait a couple weeks and call the sales agent about a film we wanted and say, “Is that film still available?” And if it was, that meant no bidding war had erupted, and we could buy it for whatever we could afford. We’ve handled some really wonderful films that way, but it did limit our ability to get involved in new projects. Once we started growing, after Secret of Kells, we were in the better position of being able to have advance conversations. Since people know that we’re one of the only distributors in this animation niche and there’s only a certain number of projects in development, I’d like to think that we know about 90 percent of animated films in any given moment that are in production. People are starting conversations with us earlier. We like to look at scripts and films while they’re in production, rather than be caught blindsided at a festival, which still happens, but rather than be in the position of thinking a film is so great, but it already has its French release or its home release planned. If we can be involved early on in terms of how to bring the film to market and create an awareness strategy so that its globally, that’s always been really exciting.
Can you think of a movie that completely blindsided you recently?
Yeah. Boy and the World was a great example. That was just a Vimeo link. Occasionally, people will just send us stuff and sometimes you watch five minutes and you’re like, “I’ve seen enough.” But this was one of those films where we didn’t know the sales agent, it was [director] Alê Abreu’s first film, and it was this stick figure look, so we watched a couple of minutes and said, “Huh. This is interesting.” Then it just keeps building and building and by the end, the first thing you want to do is call someone in to watch it again.
For the first time, GKIDS is actually producing a film, instead of just distributing it. What made the company move in that direction?
Our first time joining a project as executive producers is The Breadwinner, which is a new Cartoon Saloon project. They did Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, and we’re joining the project along with Angelina Jolie’s Jolie Pas Productions. I’m really excited about it, since we’ve always imagined that we’d evolve from a distributor to a producer. Not that producing makes any financial sense. It’s much easier to be a distributor and wait until the film is done, and then if it’s bad, you don’t have to buy it. You sort of own what you make when you’re a producer. But it felt like something we still wanted to be involved in because the business has always been about creative passion and wanting to tell stories. As general newbies to this, we felt The Breadwinner was a great opportunity because we feel very comfortable with Cartoon Saloon. With them, I know it’s going to look amazing and that they have the storytelling ability to take what’s on the page and make it feel like a real story with heart and emotion. If our little bit of financing can make a [director of Secret of Kells] Tomm Moore movie happen even one or two years earlier, then that will have been a major achievement in my life.
Is your contribution mainly financial?
It’s a mix. It’s partially financial, as well as guaranteed distribution in America. We also provide story feedback and stuff like that, but in a very limited sense and it’s always very respectful. The other thing I really respect about Cartoon Saloon is that when you have these co-productions, you have so many different partners and there’s a real issue where things can become a flavorless soup because everyone has their issues and, by the time you’ve addressed everyone’s, it doesn’t feel like something that any one person was passionate about. Instead, it represents the idiosyncrasies of twenty people in the room. We want to be very careful about that. I think they’re great storytellers, eager for feedback, but they also know when to follow their gut. At the end of the day, it’s really important to us that it’s driven by Nora Twomey, the director, who is the only female director of an animated feature in 2017, by the way.
Will you continue producing films, or are you taking a wait-and-see approach based on this first foray?
It’s something that we’re very excited about, but we want to be thoughtful about it. I don’t think we’re eager to necessarily abandon everything we’ve done and become just a straight production company. But I think there’ll always be a place for helping to produce films that we want our name linked to in a way other than just being distributors. I’m happy being a distributor for a number of films and hope that we can continue and grow, but, obviously, the production side is also really exciting. If we can help a few more films exist every year and make them better, then that would be a huge achievement.