Most mainstream American animation looks the same.
Sure, if you really dig deep, the films of Pixar look different from, say, the films of Blue Sky (the Ice Age series, among others). But on the surface, mainstream American computer-animated movies boast that slightly plastic quality that makes them so good for simulating toys or bugs or life under the sea.
But these films also tell largely the same types of stories — a quick look into a hidden world, usually centered on mismatched traveling partners, the approach Pixar has used since its first film, 1995's Toy Story. Indiewire critic David Ehrlich put it thusly when commenting on his Letterboxd (a social media site based on film) review of Disney's Zootopia:
This is a systemic issue. My frustrations are with the type of movies that have been made with this style, the limitations that have been imposed on them, the corporate ethos they exude, how every frame feels like a product, how everything feels sterile and stuck in time.
It doesn't have to be this way. A tiny distributor shows an alternate path, found from looking overseas.
GKIDS is bringing the best animation in the world to the US
Technically speaking, the New York-based GKIDS — which stands for Guerrilla Kids International Distribution Syndicate — isn't producing animation.
What it does is bring the best existing animated films from around the world to the United States. Its movies never feel same-y. They're always something different. Like, say, Boy and the World, from Brazil:
Or Song of the Sea, from Ireland:
Or the company's latest film, April and the Extraordinary World, from France:
What unites these projects isn't animation style or approach or even theme — it's quality. You might not like every GKIDS film (and a quick look at their box office totals suggests you probably haven't seen many of them), but you can always see why the company was passionate enough about them to bring them to American theaters.
Consider April, for instance. Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci, the film's directors, who say they have "only good things to say about GKIDS," praise the distributor both for helping with the English translation from French and for helping attract an all-star cast for the English dub (including Susan Sarandon, J.K. Simmons, and Paul Giamatti).
Indeed, April's international release (which came in late March in the US) has given it renewed life after it struggled in its home country, due to unfortunate timing — it was released the Wednesday after the November 2015 shootings and explosions in Paris. Moving into other countries, then, has given the film space to breathe as a film.
"People who work in animation are making movies in the shadows of an animation studio, 'outside the real world,' in front of a screen for months and months. So, engaging with audience members [from all over the world] is a great joy," the directors told me via email.
So what makes a GKIDS film?
"The formula is: Do we like it, and will we work hard for it?" said Eric Beckman, the founder and president of GKIDS, when I asked him what makes a movie one his company should release. But, he cautions, "we've learned a little that just because we like a film doesn't mean we're going to have success with it."
Yet for a company like GKIDS, "success" sometimes has a very different meaning than massive box office. For one thing, the company has been phenomenally rewarded by the Oscars, receiving eight nominations for best animated feature (though it has yet to win).
GKIDS isn't in it for the Oscars, but it does appreciate both the economic boost the awards give and the way they impact directors' careers. "It raises the prestige and value of the film here in North America, but it raises the value of the film and the recognition it gets throughout the world," Beckman told me.
What makes GKIDS unique among indie film companies (and what has helped it at the Oscars) is its aggressive focus on animation from all over the world. Though it grew out of the New York International Children's Film Festival and initially had ambitions of importing live-action films aimed at kids as well (indeed, its very first film, shown in 2008 at several festivals, was Tahaan, a live-action movie from India), animation very quickly became its sole focus.
Some of this was likely the company's twin breakthrough successes, released within a few months of each other, and both animated in bright, poppy styles.
The first was Sita Sings the Blues, which exemplifies GKIDS's approach. The film (paralleling the crumbling of a modern woman's marriage with stories from the Hindu text the Ramayana) was produced independently by the director Nina Paley — who retains most rights to it and has released it to the internet under a Creative Commons license — but GKIDS helped get it into theaters and, thus, in front of the eyes of more critics, who were rhapsodic about its beautiful visuals and sardonic plot.
The second was The Secret of Kells, the company's first collaboration with Irish director Tomm Moore. (He would go on to make Song of the Sea, too.) The film, boosted by the company's first Oscar nomination, stood as GKIDS's most successful release at the box office for three years, and it's still only been supplanted by a handful of later films. (The company has distributed anywhere from three to five films in a given year — though some of those have only played festivals, rather than seeing general release to theaters.)
How streaming helps companies like GKIDS stay alive
Increasingly for GKIDS's films, as with many other indie companies at GKIDS's level, theatrical runs are just a preamble to a long, eventual run on streaming services, particularly Amazon Prime, which has the rights to several GKIDS films.
Before streaming, GKIDS's films would have been limited to arthouse theaters in urban areas and college towns. But not all film fans necessarily lived in those areas, and for those who were curious about movies from other countries, it could be hard to catch up with even prominent indie releases. The rise of video on-demand has helped those barriers crumble.
Thanks to streaming, says the company's distribution head Dave Jesteadt, the audience can be "broadened." (Selling streaming rights, says Beckman, is also a "pretty significant economic component" of the company's strategy.)
"I don't think [the limited, arthouse release] is necessarily fair in terms of boxing in the audience that can enjoy those films," Jesteadt says. "[Streaming] removes access barriers for families in particular."
This, of course, is not that unusual in terms of indie film companies. Many purchase more challenging fare, then market it to niche audiences, before shuttling the film along to the streaming world, where it will hopefully find even larger viewership.
GKIDS has found a way to survive in the economically risky world of indie film
The GKIDS strategy is a necessarily more limited one, with lower potential for huge, breakout hits than, say, Pixar's strategy. Indeed, GKIDS has only seen one movie cross the $1 million mark at the box office. But GKIDS's approach also allows for more adventurous material.
Look at most animated films released in the US, as opposed to other countries, says Beckman — who likes many of those films. "No matter what, it's still within a very narrow range when you look at what's possible with the art form."
That frustrating sameness extends beyond visuals. For instance, GKIDS was responsible for bringing the classic Only Yesterday, released in Japan in 1991, to the US for its first major theatrical release in the states, which arrived in February.
The movie is quiet and contemplative, and its American release (which had been very successful for other movies from the film's studio, Studio Ghibli) had been thwarted by the fact that a major plot point deals with the protagonist learning about menstruation.
But it's proved a modest success for GKIDS, and Beckman takes delight in American audiences finding the film. "Looking only at the pacing, if you compare it to most of the Hollywood films out there, it's almost on the opposite extreme. It's very rewarding to see a gentle, thoughtful, contemplative film meet with the success it has so far."
Bringing better animation to our shores can only help budding cinephiles
If the economic marketplace for indie films is still a difficult one in the modern era, there's a growing bright spot in the fact that animation increasingly has found a toehold it might not have had even a few years ago.
Indeed, that success might be key: Foreign animated films are a great way to both open up kids to viewpoints from other shores and to get them used to watching movies produced in other countries, with other cultural assumptions than their own, a key part of any budding cinephile's education. (Though, of course, not all animation is aimed at kids — GKIDS has at least one film suitable for all ages released every year.)
Indie animation's success isn't limited to just GKIDS. The Paramount-distributed Anomalisa, for instance, is an independently produced — Kickstarter-financed! — animated film, aimed squarely at adults, that saw critical acclaim and Oscar success last year, with a nomination for best animated feature (alongside, naturally, two GKIDS films).
The very economics that are choking out everything but tiny indie releases and major franchise films that cost hundreds of millions of dollars are, nevertheless, a big reason why smaller animation flourishes.
"You can make a more modestly budgeted film with a different distribution model," Beckman told me. "There's a lot of different ways you can create films that don't have to prop up massive 4,000 screen releases."