Animation is Film: This New LA Animation Festival is on a Mission

Eric Beckman, founder of animated film distributor GKIDS, has had quite the year.

This past June, the long-time theatrical distributor of the Studio Ghibli slate launched Studio Ghibli Fest 2017, a series of six Miyazaki-helmed films including Spirited Away and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, in cooperation with Fathom Events. GKIDS also obtained the home video rights to six Studio Ghibli films for a Blu-ray and DVD re-release earlier this month. On the streaming front, the company just released nine films, including Oscar nominees Boy and the World and My Life as a Zucchini, for viewing on Netflix. Not to mention their film The Breadwinner premiered to critical acclaim at TIFF in September.

Now, as if all that weren’t enough, this weekend sees the inaugural iteration of the GKIDS-Annecy-Variety collab Animation Is Film in LA. We caught up with Beckman to pick his brain on his vision for the festival and the future of the form.

Ko Ricker, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Animation is Film is the first festival of its kind on the West Coast, if not the entire U.S. How’s the ride to launch been?

Eric Beckman (EB): Well, you know, starting a film festival is not for the weak of heart. It’s been a lot of work, but I launched the New York International Children’s Film Festival—I’m still on the board there—once upon a time so I know the drill. It’s been exciting and gratifying with the amount of support and partners we have and the team we’ve put together. Now that the lineup is selected and tickets are on sale it’s super exciting. Hopefully it’s like childbirth—once the baby is there you forget all the pain.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower will have its U.S. premiere at Animation is Film

MM: How was the vision for the New York International Children’s Film Festival similar to or different from that of Animation is Film?

EB: What they have in common is that they are mission-based festivals with real reasons to exist in the world. New York Children’s is really a festival to redefine what children’s filmmaking can be. The selection there was aspirational; [we wanted to] put together an exciting, thoughtful, provocative, meaningful lineup of film for young people that didn’t consist of just cotton candy and plastic toys. It’s not just educational, but also a rich cinematic experience. There has never really been a major animation festival in the United States. New York Children’s has been an entry point for a lot of animation coming into the States—from Michel Ocelot to Mamoru Hosoda to Hayao Miyazaki to Tomm Moore. What NYCIFF couldn’t show, even though we push the limits as far as we can, was super adult animation. Chico and Rita was pushing a little too far. [Laughs]

The Animation is Film festival has a different mission. It is trying to redefine and paint a different picture in people’s minds of what animation is and what it can be. Doing it in Los Angeles is important—in Hollywood, with filmmakers attending, so people interested in film can see what is going on in the world of animation. This is a film festival where people who are interested in and excited about filmmaking, and open to the idea of animation, can understand a much broader richer world of animation than they otherwise might be exposed to. [At Animation is Film,] you can see six or eight films and meet the filmmakers and binge watch some of the greatest animated films from around the world. No one individual film completely captures some ideal.

Birdboy: The Forgotten Children is a Spanish film directed by Pedro Rivero and Alberto Vázquez

MM: What’s an example of a film that is showing at Animation is Film that wouldn’t fly at the New York International Children’s Film Festival?

EB: [Laughs] Well, we have a lot. Tehran Taboo, which had its world premiere at Cannes, is very dark. It’s about the drug and prostitution underground world of Tehran, which is otherwise a city with a very conservative religious bureaucracy, so it’s interesting to see how those two worlds blend together. It’s a film that needs animation to provide a little distance from the subject matter. Night is Short, Walk on Girl by Masaaki Yuasa is another one that is very dark.

Fireworks, Big Fish and Begonia and Lu Over the Wall are huge films that may not be “for adults” but that still have a strong draw for adult audiences. I just don’t like that whole breakdown, that there are two types of films: films for kids and then films for adults. There’s an example I always give when that comes up. If someone had tried to tell Mark Twain that Huck Finn was a kid’s book that person would get a punch in the face [laughs]. Or is Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away a children’s film? It’s a film that a wide audience can enjoy.

The Breadwinner is Irish studio Cartoon Saloon’s third film, following The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea

MM: I noticed that you guys scheduled Tehran Taboo and Mary and the Witch’s Flower at the same time. That is personally devastating for me.

EB: We tried so hard! When we have multiple weekends then it will be easier, but because each film is only showing once we tried really hard especially for the new films, to not put out anything against each other unless we really had to, and when we did we tried to make sure one skewed much younger. You try and do your best job. If you really want to see both you’ll have to pull a Hermione and go back in time and see the other.

MM: How do you see the status of animation in the U.S. film market, and how do you hope to see it evolve?

EB: Generally, in the United States, because of the outside success of what we can now call the Disney-Pixar-Dreamworks style of family-oriented animation, [these types of films] have provided the dominant association for animated film. If you are making a film for a studio that is investing $80 million to $100 million, that project has to be successful on many different levels. It has to deliver not just at the box office, in home video, and in television sales, but also theme park attractions and licensing deals—and that comes with restraints. It’s a huge risk. That’s why you have so many franchise pictures; because you have a huge investment.

You have a much wider range of types of animated films coming out of France and some other European countries, for example, because of their very strong auteur culture, a much smaller market, and different funding scenarios. And now that animation is getting easier to make [due to] advancing technologies in production and distribution, you have countries all over the world that are developing unique and new animation capabilities.

In the U.S., I think there is an opening up to new types of animation. Both with the Studio Ghibli films and some other Japanese films, people say, “Oh, there is something happening outside the U.S.” Or [you see] some of the GKIDS films that have made waves with film-forward audiences and the Oscars, and you start to have this idea that there is a broader world of animation out there. Platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime allow for a wider sampling of different types of filmmaking. I do think that there is an expanding notion of what animation can be in the United States. And one of the philosophical concepts surrounding Animation is Film is that the best animated films have not yet been made.

Night is Short, Walk on Girl is directed by experimental anime pioneer Masaaki Yuasa, who has two other films in the festival

MM: What Animation is Film screenings would you recommend to someone who doesn’t think they like animation?

EB: Oh my God, why don’t they like animation? That’s what I have to find out. [Laughs] If you think you don’t like animation go to see “Songs of Love and Death.” It’s a short film program that is rather adult with a wide array of topics. If you sit through “Songs of Love and Death” and don’t love three or four of those films to death, then I can’t help you with your problem with animation. MM

Animation is Film will run from October 20 to October 22, 2017. For more information, visit the festival’s website here. Get 30% off all tickets with code MOVIEMAKE at checkout. Top image from Tehran Taboo. All images courtesy of GKIDS.

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