GKIDS, the Indie Distributor, Looking to Shake Up the Animated Feature Race

The distributor behind 'The Tale of The Princess Kaguya' and 'Song of the Sea' has just acquired 'When Marnie Was There' from Studio Ghibli.
Courtesy of Festival de Cannes
'The Tale of the Princess Kaguya'

GKIDS, which has scored four best animated feature Oscar nominations in the past five years, the most for an independent distributor, could shake up the animated feature race again. And it's already got its eye set on next years race as it announced Wednesday that it has acquired When Marnie Was There, a hand-drawn animated feature from Japan’s Studio Ghibli, which will be released in the U.S. in the spring.

The distributor first turned heads in 2010 when one of its early releases, The Secret of Kells from Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, landed a surprise Oscar nomination. It followed that feat with a double nomination in 2012, for A Cat in Paris and Chico and Rita. A year ago, it earned another nomination, for Ernest & Celestine.

This season, it’s back in the hunt for Oscar nominations with two acclaimed hand-drawn animated features: Song of the Sea, from Kells director Tomm Moore and his Cartoon Saloon; and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (pictured above) from Studio Ghibli (whose founder, famous Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, received an honorary Oscar at November’s Governor’s Awards). Kaguya, directed by Studio Ghibli’s co-founder Isao Takahata, has already been honored by critics groups, including a Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for best animation, and has earned three Annie Award nominations including best animated feature. Song of the Sea (pictured below), collected seven Annie Award nominations including best animated feature—it tied with Disney’s Big Hero 6 and got one more than The Lego Movie. (The Boxtrollls and How To Train Your Dragon 2 lead with 13 and 10 nominations respectively).

GKIDS is furthering its relationship with Studio Ghibli by picking up the North American rights to its hand-animated When Marnie Was There, which might be the final feature-length film from the studio. Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arrietty) and based on the British children’s novel by Joan G. Robinson, the film tells the story of a troubled young girl, Anna, who finds herself drawn to the abandoned Marsh House and a mysterious girl Marnie who appears in the window. “We first worked with GKIDS on a theatrical retrospective series that started in 2011 and we continue to grow our relationship,” Jeffrey Wexler, head of international for Ghibli, said, crediting GKIDs for its “choice of excellent venues and thoughtful marketing to their successful awards support.”

Led by Eric Beckman and David Jesteadt, GKIDS also runs the New York International Children’s Film Festival, an Oscar qualifier, and the company has expanded to create a distribution platform for films that they seek out at festivals held around the world. As to its awards record, Jesteadt said, “I would love to be able to take credit for it as a company, but the strength is in the films and being able to champion the filmmakers and give them a chance to compete.”

Princess Kaguya is an adaptation of a famous 10th century Japanese folktale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, in which a bamboo cutter discovers a mysterious baby sent to earth from the Kingdom of the Moon as punishment for a crime. “It has only been made into a film once before: a live-action film by one of the preeminent Japanese directors, Kon Ichikawa. But that film wasn’t entirely well-received,” Takahata said via an interpreter. “Why is such a well-known story so difficult to make into a film? The reason is that there are famous scenes in the original tale, but there are various defects in the story and in the depictions of the characters. Over 50 years ago, I became convinced that this story would become vastly more entertaining by considering why it was that the heroine, The Princess Kaguya, came from the Moon to Earth. 

“A longtime dream of mine had been to create an animation film without drawing everything in the pictures, to allow audiences room to revive their memories and imaginations,” the director said of the film's look. “My aim is to show images quickly sketched of what is right in front of the artist, and have the audience share in the drawer’s lively spirit in the moment.”

Song of the Sea (pictured below) is an original story based on an idea that Moore had while making Kells, which was inspired by the mythological Selkies who live as seals in the sea but become humans on land.

While Song of the Sea is based on Irish folklore, it’s also made for an international audience. “When I started working with Will Collins, the screenwriter, we had to keep the story simple and clear enough that you didn't have to know anything about Irish folklore to enjoy it as a straight fairy tale," said Moore. "We wanted to make sure it was universal and then if people got insight into the culture that was a bonus.”

Moore told The Hollywood Reporter that he really got to know GKIDS during the promotional tour for Kells, and there was a common vision that’s keeping them together. “I think they were really stunned by the Oscar nomination [for Kells],” he admitted. “We were approached by bigger distributors this time, but I wanted to stick with GKIDS because I felt we had a commonality of approach and similar vision for what could be done with animation and we're hoping that there's room in the market for more unusual cartoons in addition to the ones being made by the studios.”

Jesteadt is thrilled that the Academy’s animated feature category shines a light on small films as well as studio tentpoles, saying “win or lose it’s an amazing experience for us and our filmmakers.”

E-mail: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com
Twitter: @CGinLA