Pete Hammond

Talk about the minis slaying the majors! It doesn’t get much more defined in those terms than in the financial divide between the nominees for this year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar. In one corner you have Paramount, which in addition to their own first big foray into the ‘toon competition with front-runner Rango has a distribution deal with Dreamworks Animation, which landed both of their 2011 films – Puss In Boots and Kung Fu Panda 2 – in the hunt. In the other corner you have tiny upstart GKIDS. Who?

The small New York outfit that became a distribution offshoot of the New York International Children’s Film Festival incredibly has the other two animated feature nominees with their indie pickups Chico & Rita and A Cat In Paris. Counting their initial foray into the Oscar race two years ago with The Secret Of Kells, this tiny distrib now has three ‘toon nominees in just a couple of years. Not bad. Left feeling shell-shocked are Disney/Pixar, a perennial nominee and winner in this category for the past four years running; Sony Pictures Animation, which touted Aardman’s Arthur Christmas; and 20th Century Fox’s Rio from Blue Sky Studios (Ice Age) — not to mention Steven Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson’s intial animated effort, the motion capture The Adventures Of Tintin.

Eric Beckman, founder of GKIDS and the kidpic festival that spawned it, was hoping for one nomination this year but almost didn’t even really dream there could be two. “I won’t dare to lie: We had the hopes, if not expectations of getting at least one, having been down this road before with Kells, so we had planned on opening Chico & Rita in New York with that hope,” he says. “But I will completely fess up to the fact that when I was watching the Oscar nominations at 8:30 AM that morning and the first one that came up was Cat In Paris and the second one that came up was Chico & Rita I started spontaneously screaming around the room, and I had to rewind on TiVo to find out who the other actual films were because I was fucking floored. To have the Academy give us such a resounding endorsement made me really happy.”

Beckman isn’t an Academy member so he can’t vote for his films, and when Kells was nominated two years ago he couldn’t even get a ticket to the ceremony to cheer on the filmmakers — how times have changed. He says he doesn’t even believe in this kind of competition, comparing it to pitting Picasso vs. Van Gogh, but the marketing value is unmistakable. “For us our whole purpose is to help open the market up and expand the market for what I find both artful and thoughtful, sophisticated animated films for both adults and kids, an art form that exists with more economic success outside the U.S than inside,” he says.

Indeed, both his nominees this year are international in nature. Chico & Rita  is from Oscar-winning Spanish director Fernando Trueba and is a musical love story set initially in 1940s Cuba and spanning many years. It was first seen in the U.S. at the 2010 Telluride Film Festival but took over a year before a distribution deal could be set in motion.  A Cat In Paris is a French ‘toon noir from first-timers Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol, a novelist who specializes in crime stories. GKIDS hope to use the Oscar nomination to launch the film in the U.S. in late spring after it is dubbed into English, possibly with star names — “If Matt Damon or Tina Fey are reading this now, please call,” Beckman laughs. Meanwhile Chico opened in NY a couple of weeks ago and received rave reviews and decent business with plans to slowly expand the adult ‘toon. Beckman hadn’t even met the directors until earlier this month; they had been doing everything by phone and email.

In terms of finding films, Beckman says he has a distinct advantage as Artistic Director of the NY Children’s Fest because, as he puts it, he looks at a “gazillion” films and has early tabs on stuff. Ironically, he first saw Cat In Paris because he was out at Pixar doing a promotional thing for 2009 festival winner Mia And The Migoo, which GKIDS distributed. Folimage, the French outfit behind it, was there and asked him and the Pixar crowd to look at 15 minutes of the then-unfinished Cat In Paris on DVD. Beckman loved it, waited for it to be finished and bought last year before Berlin.

As for trying to compete against the big-budget Oscar campaigns of Paramount and DreamWorks Animation, Beckman is realistic. “I don’t think that double-fold wrap-around advertising or tweet, whatever, convinces someone to like a film,” he says. “I think it gets them to watch a film. Maybe it does shape their opinions in some way, shape or form. But our challenge is just getting the film into the hands of the Academy and getting them to put the damn thing in the DVD player. We’re an indie film company; we’re not going to spend a half million dollars on an awards campaign — we can’t. But we are spending something and we got a big shot in the arm from the New York critics (with Chico).

Beckman says he has several projects in the pipeline with the basic goal of being the go-to home for Oscar-caliber independent animation, something the Academy members who vote in this category clearly appreciate.

GKIDS is right in the thick of it now. And Beckman definitely has tickets for the Oscars this time.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.

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