When the Irish animated film “The Secret of Kells” received a surprise Oscar nomination in 2010, GKids, the boutique distribution company that mounted a stealthy but mighty grass roots campaign on its behalf, had been around for only a little over a year.
Back then, the company’s entire operation consisted of two full-time employees and one part-timer. But this year, Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Boy and the Heron” became GKids’s 13th release in their 15-year history to receive a nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for best animated feature. The hand-drawn movie has a real shot at winning and becoming the first GKids release to do so.
How has a small outfit focused on animation managed to have such an outsized effect in Hollywood?
Eric Beckman, a former music industry executive, founded GKids with the intent of redefining American audiences’ perception of animation as more than a children’s medium. At the time, family-friendly, computer-generated and stylistically similar studio productions had an even tighter stronghold on animation in the United States than they do today.
GKids has since filled a precious gap by consistently releasing bold animated work from around the world. For more than a decade now, it has also been entrusted with the North American distribution of titles in the catalog of the revered Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli, maker of “The Boy and the Heron.”
Beckman started in animation in a roundabout way. He co-founded the New York International Children’s Film Festival in 1997 with Emily Shapiro, his wife at the time. While the festival was not strictly an animation showcase, it allowed Beckman to develop meaningful relationships with numerous animation companies, including Studio Ghibli.
“I felt young people needed more intelligent, thoughtful films, and because there was no big animation festival in the States, we became the entry point for a lot of amazing animation,” Beckman explained during a recent video call. He wore a T-shirt adorned with the title character of the apocalyptic Spanish tale “Birdboy: The Forgotten Children,” a 2017 GKids release.
GKids first emerged as an offshoot of the festival. The name was derived from Guerrilla Kids, the moniker for the event’s presenter, shortened to GKids on the festival website. He soon hired David Jesteadt, an intern at the since-defunct indie distributor New Yorker Films. He is now the president of GKids.
“From the minute Dave came on board, we communicated by osmosis,” Beckman said. The two had long nurtured a love of animation — such as “Yellow Submarine” (1968), which Beckman saw in theaters multiple times as a boy, and the bootleg VHS tapes that introduced Jesteadt to anime.
Aside from Sony Pictures Classics, which had distributed a handful of art-house animated features over the years, there was a wide-open market for GKids to help develop.
“We were a small company, so there were no rules about what we could or couldn’t acquire,” Jesteadt said via video call from Los Angeles, where he is based.
GKids started pursuing animated titles like their first release, Michel Ocelot’s “Azur & Asmar” (released in the United States in 2008), for which other distributors couldn’t envision an American audience, meaning large sums weren’t needed to bid against competitors. To overcome biases against animation, the fledgling executives’ strategy was not to market to young fans, even if the material was for all ages. Instead, they aimed for art-house moviegoers.
“The messaging would be: ‘This belongs next to all other beautiful French cinema. It just happens to be animated, and you can bring your family too,’” Jesteadt said.
For the first four years or so, Beckman and Jesteadt worked shoulder to shoulder in a minuscule office with one window. The first breakthrough came when they acquired rights to Tomm Moore’s hand-drawn, Celtic mythology-inspired “The Secret of Kells” in 2009, just in time to qualify it for Oscar consideration. With limited resources and no experience, they put together an awards campaign. “Up” won that year, but just being nominated was, as the saying goes, a true honor.
From that unexpected triumph, a fruitful bond formed with Cartoon Saloon, the Irish studio behind the film. For “The Breadwinner,” which is about an Afghan girl living under Taliban rule, GKids officially became a producing partner with the studio, providing feedback early in the development process.
Moore likened the executives to fellow travelers, explaining, “You don’t feel like you’re just another filler title in a huge slate. They feel like an extension of our studio.”
After receiving an Oscar nomination in 2012 for “Chico & Rita,” a Spanish-language, adult-themed romance (their film “A Cat in Paris” was also nominated that year), the GKids executives considered changing the company moniker. Ultimately, they decided against it to avoid legal complications.
“The ‘Kids’ has been a misaligned part of our name since the earliest day,” Beckman said.
Without the resources for the expensive campaigns typical of awards-season contenders, GKids focuses on ensuring that the animation industry sees its gems and hopes that their quality generates word-of-mouth interest. There’s often an awards-qualifying theatrical run, followed by a wider release after the Academy announces the nominations; the recognition provides a promotional boost.
France’s “Ernest & Celestine” (2014), which maps the unlikely friendship between a bear and a mouse; Brazil’s “Boy and the World” (2015), a wordless, kaleidoscopic indictment of capitalism; and Switzerland’s “My Life as a Zucchini” (2017), a stop-motion dramedy set in an orphanage, are among GKids’s other Oscar-nominated standouts.
Based on GKids’s growing reputation, Studio Ghibli — through the head of its international division at the time, Steven Alpert — asked the distributor to handle its back catalog for theatrical releases after its deal with the Walt Disney Company lapsed.
“They’re a small company, and we’re a small company,” Beckman said. “I’d like to think we’ve taken care of their films really well, but I don’t fully know how we got blessed with that.”
The Studio Ghibli co-founder Toshio Suzuki recalled that Alpert, who knew Beckman from his days at the festival, recommended GKids because he thought there weren’t “any others who are as serious as they are among distribution companies.”
Releasing “The Boy and the Heron” was the ultimate test of capabilities honed over 15 years since Studio Ghibli released the film without any advance publicity in Japan. GKids’s marketing materials for the film were therefore the first to see the light.
“With their small staff, GKids is able to be agile in their process, and we really appreciate that they keep in close contact with the Japanese side,” Suzuki said via email. “I feel included in the promotion activities with them. Their results have exceeded our expectations.”
“The Boy and the Heron,” Miyazaki’s first movie in a decade, debuted in theaters in December and is already Studio Ghibli’s highest grossing title in the United States, as well as GKids’s biggest success ever. It opened at No. 1 at the North American box office and has grossed $44.9 million domestically to date.
“I’m still petrified about the whole thing. It’s a huge honor and a huge responsibility,” Beckman said. “I’m so overwhelmed with joy that it’s gone as well as it has and that audiences have embraced this film.”
In 2017, GKids returned to its roots in a way, starting one of its most profitable projects, Studio Ghibli Fest, which brings classics like “My Neighbor Totoro” or “Spirited Away” to theaters across North America for special screenings every year. In 2023 alone, the screening series grossed $15 million.
That same year, GKids held the first edition of the Animation Is Film Festival in Los Angeles, yet another enterprise to champion animation as a cinematic art form often left out at other film events. Over four days each fall, about 12 animated features debut.
Catering to both anime fans and general audiences, today GKids straddles many aspects of the animation ecosystem. Beckman thinks of GKids, which now has about 30 employees, less as an animation specialist and more as an innovative distributor of independent fare like A24 or Neon.
“It does feel like we’re in a bit of a distinct place in the market for what we’re doing,” Beckman said. “Animation is a good business.”