Interview: Eric Beckman, Founder & President of GKIDS

by Zac Bertschy,

Eric Beckman is the co-founder and president of GKIDS, a film distributor well-known among anime fans for their careful (and Academy Award nomination-laden) handling of several Studio Ghibli films in the US, including The Tale of Princess Kaguya and From Up On Poppy Hill. Earlier in 2016 they had another Ghibli gem nominated for an Oscar, When Marnie Was There - which helped raise awareness for their other spring release, Only Yesterday, a little-seen but critically acclaimed Isao Takahata film with a new dub starring Daisy Ridley and Dev Patel.

It's all pretty great timing for the company, which is also in the middle of the New York International Children's Film Festival, a yearly treasure trove of foreign and independent animation that's been delighting audiences with splashy premieres for anime films in New York for years. This year they hosted an opening night screening of Mamoru Hosoda's new film, The Boy and The Beast, in addition to a screening of The Case of Hana & Alice. We had the chance to ask Beckman a few questions about his history with the company, anime's place in film festivals, opening audiences up to the world beyond Miyazaki and more.

How did you come to be involved with the festival?

So I co-founded the festival back in 1997. I used to do everything for the festival and slowly my role has been morphing so now I just do the fun stuff, which was basically my concept for the festival, which was a type of filmmaking for children that was more… I would say, meaningful adventures, artistic, thoughtful, than was typically being presented to young people. So we started the event with a little pilot festival back in ‘97 and it grew quite rapidly. There was a really strong embrace of this type of filmmaking and so it's been sort of a labor of love.


How early did anime become part of this?

So “international” is in our name, and it's been part of what we've done, and a part of that is filmmaking in the United States tends to be constrained by large budgets and a need for massive 4000 screen releases. Outside the US there are so many amazing things going on. I was a huge early fan of Hayao Miyazaki. I grew up on Speed Racer. It's in my blood somewhere. We did Kimba … I think it only showed in New York for a short period of time, but I loved that show when I was, like, six. I remember we did a big Japanese Animation retrospective in the year 2000 and we showed some Tezuka stuff and we showed Kimba and there was all these teary-eyed forty-year-old men who hadn't seen or thought of that in a long time. But early on, the first major festival was 1999 and we did Kiki's Delivery Service. We've done a bunch of the Ghibli films throughout the years. 2000 I think, Castle in the Sky was [the] opening night film, I'm gonna have to go back and jog my memory, but yeah, it's been both short films and feature films, animation and live action, Japan has been a really important territory for us, but the animation obviously, super, super rich history of anime at the festival. We did a big retrospective in 2000 called “Anime: 50 Years of Japanese Animation” which was really fun and I think introduced a lot of people to something they may only have tangentially known.

As a festival programmer, and your audience for the New York International Children's Film Festival is very different from, say, the typical audience for anime. What are the challenges that anime presents you as a festival programmer, when you have done the programming?

I don't think of it so much as challenges as a wonderful, rich opportunity. The festival is not just for little kids. We have programs for ages 3-6, 5-10, 8-14, 12+, we do 14+ programs. I would say the most exciting films that play the festival, it's hard to say whether they're for children or not for children. If you look at a film like, whatever, Spirited Away, it would be insulting to say that was a children's film. So I think the most exciting elements have been those films where adults and kids can enjoy the film together, not with the kids enjoying on one level and the adults somehow on some other level. Quite often it's the opposite. I remember we did Welcome to THE SPACE SHOW, I don't know if you're familiar with that film…


I am!

And then afterwards there were all these nine-year-olds explaining to their parents what the hell was going on, because the parents were lost.

<laughs>

But we're doing The Boy and The Beast this year. We've done US premieres of all four of Hosoda's films. And so it's been a festival first and foremost, I would say, and a children's event second, from the beginning. We have a fairly large population of unaccompanied adults who come to the festival. And certainly all the anime outlets and people who are interested in Japanese Animation know the festival and get their tickets early and don't think of us as a kiddie event, but as a place where the best animation from around the world is being showcased, which I think is something the festival can lay claim to.

So it's maybe a little tricky to call it a “children's film festival”.

Well, if I could go back in time we might come up with a different title. There was an early moment where I'd just got back to my apartment with the brochure in my hand for the first festival and I was super excited and this brochure did not look like a kiddie thing. I used to tell our graphic designers when they'd come back with balloons and rainbows and that sort of thing, and I'd say “Pretend it's a Nine Inch Nails album cover, give me something thoughtful and deep.” So this was a really sophisticated-looking brochure with dark colors and I handed it to this thirteen-year-old girl in the elevator and she saw the word “children's” and kind of curled up her lip and handed it back to me with a roll of the eyes. So I think one of the things we've done with the festival is had to ask ourselves at every moment “was is a children's film?” And for me I just throw that out the door, I don't even think about that.

The festival's been an academy-qualifying festival for I think seven years, which means our short films both in animation and live action, the winners automatically qualify for the Oscars. We've generated more Oscar nominations for animation and feature animation than any other festival in North America. It's a real film festival and it's a real place where adults and children can discover some amazing, amazing filmmaking. Our short film programs, are second to none, and I'm not just being immodest here. <laughs> I've been to a million film festivals, I've seen a zillion short film programs and we take such, such care in our short film programs, which I would say are probably 80% animation, 75% or 80% animation as it turns out. We looked this year at over 4000 films to select our few that are showing in competition in the short films selection. So you can go see any of the short films selections, and you're going to have a great time. So I think “discovery” is a big word, challenging notions of what children's filmmaking is and can be, and to a great extent, at least with people who are mostly familiar with animation that's been produced by Hollywood, opening people's minds to a much broader, more exciting range of what animation can do. From stuff that happens in Japan or France or Brazil, or other places in the world, experimental short film animation is such a huge, wide-ranging art form with so many possibilities. I think in the States people tend to think of animation very narrowly, so it's exciting for us to be able to introduce the audiences to a wider range of animation.


Have you found it more difficult to get your audience more interested in anime that isn't by Miyazaki? This year you're screening The Case of Hana and Alice, which is a challenging film. Is it tougher to fill that auditorium, to get people excited about that when it doesn't have that Miyazaki brand name?

So one of the beautiful things about the festival, and this is something that has happened over time, is people will come to see films, and we sell out every seat, there's no empty seats at all.

Right.

People trust, now, our film selection, and people will come to see pretty much anything we select. That's very different from when a film is being distributed theatrically, where decisions are made based on “has anybody heard of the film? Has somebody recommended the film to you?” So within the film festival it's very, very rewarding to take a film like Hana and Alice, which I absolutely love, which you'd be hard pressed to say who is the audience for this film? Is this a film for adults? Is this a film for kids? Are art house audiences gonna like this? The animation is a very specific style. It's very interesting. Even what is this film about? Is it a mom/daughter relationship movie and then it morphs into some sort of high school mystery with sort of supernatural overtones and then it kinda morphs into a buddy movie towards the end and a very sort of artistic thing. So it's really wonderful for me as a programmer to be able to take chances on films that might be hard to pigeonhole, or hard to describe easily in two sentences for a log line, or something like that, and have people come to the film and experience something new and tell us what they think.

It's been very, very, very exciting. I think Miyazaki has introduced a lot of people to both Japanese Animation and a broader range of animation, and I think having opened their eyes to that, then you get the taste and you're looking around wider. So in this little gap coming up where there seems to be a lack of new Ghibli films, it's very interesting to see if more people will discover Mamoru Hosoda, if more people will look at what's coming out of France, which has very, very, very rich history of amazing animated films. It's happening to some extent with Anomalisa this year, where you have people who normally wouldn't watch animated films are watching animated films and “oh shit, this is definitely not Pixar.” <laughs>

Absolutely.

And so, separate from the festival, which has been championing this stuff for two decades now, and outside New York, where we may have to work a little harder to open people's eyes up to what's out there, y'know, it remains a challenge/opportunity I guess. I don't know how familiar you are with GKids and the films we distribute, but that's all we handle is international animation. And so it's the same thing. You look at Ernest and Celestine, which is an amazing and beautiful film, I think, it was a similar situation to any of these Ghibli films for the English versions where everyone wants to be involved, we were thrilled when we went to cast this thing, everybody we asked said “yes, yes!” They wanted to be in this movie and they ended up piling on. We were originally just going to cast four parts with celebrities and we ended up casting eight roles with celebrities.

I think there's a large appetite and audience, and I think that as people start to think about animation more broadly and it's not just PG-Rated CG comedies that open on 4000 screens, you can have a film like Anomalisa or you can have a film like Boy and the World, which premiered at the festival and is an Oscar nominee this year. You can have a film like Persepolis or Triples of Belleville or any of these other films that have punctured through and I think that's really positive for the medium of animation. It helps those films have more of a commercial chance for success outside some very, very, very broadly defined Hollywood version of success, where you have to have a billion dollars at the worldwide box office or it's a failure. As those films can start to have business models and audiences by some different type of distribution, then I think more people will be encouraged to make those types of movies and more of them will come to the US—I don't know, it's a long-winded answer, but I think it's a pretty exciting time for animation and I think that in some ways the Ghibli hiatus will cause a certain type of audience to go “what else might be out there?” that will fill that gap.

It sounds like you have an audience that you've created where, even if they came in on the Ghibli stuff, they trust your curation to show them something worth their time.

It's really, really rewarding. I think early on, the very first festivals where we were trying to think about “should this film even be in this festival? It's so weird.” Or “this is such pushing the limits on what you'd normally think of as a kid's film.” And sort of our positioning back then was, again, to redefine what children's film meant, so we were sort of encouraged to put those films in the festival, whether it was the subject matter, or a pacing thing, or whatever it might. Every audience member gets a ballot, and they say what they think of the films and they vote for their favorite films and they give comments on the films, and we were so rewarded by the audience who seemed to want—the weirder we got, or the more left-base we got—they seemed to really, really embrace it. We have a program at the festival called Heeby Jeebies, which is sort of scary, freaky, weird, bizarre… it's a short film program. It's wonderful that people self-select to go to this program where we're saying “we're going to show you a bunch of weird films.” For them, the weirder we get, the happier they are. The idea that ten-year-olds and their parents are coming to see some of the movies we're programming is sort of mind-boggling, but it is… it's really, really rewarding. At the festival, yes, we're going to sell out, and we probably have sold out by now, The Little Prince, and the Mamoru Hosoda film is gonna sell out, coz people know that stuff. Some of the bigger premiere stuff, of course that's going to sell out, but we sell more tickets to short film programs to anything else.


Wow.

To films that people haven't possibly heard of before, and they just know that, having done it before, that it's a great experience and they want more of that. So yeah, I think what the festival has put together in New York is unique and it's exciting and it's something where the feedback between what we program and what the audience wants has been self-reinforcing over the last—I think this is our nineteenth year—so over the last almost two decades now, we've have a chance to build that into something that's pretty exciting.

So given your experience with the festival, can you recommend one anime film from the last year or so that you think people haven't seen, one you think people should absolutely seek out?

All right, so we showed a film, you're probably not gonna call this anime, we showed a South Korean film called Satellite Girl and Milk Cow. Which I absolutely love, I don't know if it's everyone's cup of tea. I didn't realize it at the time we programmed it for the film festival, but we had programmed a short film by the film maker called Wolf Daddy, which is not even available—the original version of the film is gone, so you can't even get it in HD anymore. If anyone can find it online, it's a brilliant, brilliant film. I really love Satellite Girl and Milk Cow. It's such a weird, strange thing and this filmmaker seems to have a history of making films where inanimate objects fall in love with humans, so here we have a satellite and a human fall in love, albeit a human that's been turned into a cow. I also liked Miss Hokusai, I like it quite a bit.

Fantastic! Thanks so much for your time.


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