How a Little Company Called GKIDS Keeps Crashing the Oscar Animation Category

By picking up small international films, GKIDS has landed eight nominations in the last seven years, including two this year

Boy and the World
"Boy and the World"

A version of this story first appeared in the Oscar Nominations issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

Over the last seven years, Disney/Pixar has ruled the Oscar animation field with nine nominations and five wins. But you’d probably be surprised to learn who comes in second: Not DreamWorks Animation or Illumination or Blue Sky or Laika, but a small, eight-year-old New York-based company called GKIDS.

Since it launched in 2008, the company has landed a startling eight nominations with the kind of films that fly under the radar right up until the moment they’re announced as nominees.

“Every year it’s amusing to me that our films get nominated and people say, ‘What a surprise!’” GKIDS president Eric Beckman told TheWrap. “If you watch the movies, it shouldn’t be a surprise.”

GKIDS has two of the five nominees this year, “Boy and the World” and “When Marnie Was There”; they also notched two of the five last year with “Song of the Sea” and “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” and two in 2011 with “A Cat in Paris” and “Chico and Rita.” They’ve also scored nods for 2009’s “The Secret of Kells” and 2013’s “Ernest & Celestine.”

All eight of the company’s Oscar nominees will be screened at the Laemmle Ahrya Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills beginning Feb. 12, the day Oscar voting begins.

“God forbid we should ever be anything other than the underdog,” said Beckman with a laugh. “Everyone asks, ‘What’s the secret, what’s the secret?’ And there is no secret. The voters sit in a darkened room and watch the movies and rate them. So you just need a great film.”

Unlike the other companies in the running for the animated-feature Oscar, GKIDS doesn’t bankroll or produce its own films; instead, it scours the world for worthy animated films, picks them up for the American market and enters them in the Oscar race. The company was founded in 2008 as an offshoot of the New York International Children’s Film Festival, with a specific mission statement.

“Our whole reason for being as a company is to help expand and elevate the notion of what animation can be,” Beckman said. “As wonderful as the Hollywood animated films can be, they’re sort of narrow in their range: They’re mostly CG, PG-rated comedies with big budgets aiming for four-quadrant audiences. And there’s so much more the art form can be.”

Initially, he said, the company wasn’t thinking about Oscars at all. But when another company’s deal for Tomm Moore’s “Secret of Kells” fell through in 2008, GKIDS picked up the film three days before the deadline for Oscar submission. “We had to jump through hoops to get it qualified,” he said, “and then we started scratching our heads about how we might get it an Oscar nomination.

“And when it did, it was one of the most exciting moments of my life.”

With this year’s nominees including four films from outside the Hollywood system–Charlie Kaufman‘s odd “Anomalisa,” Aardman Animation’s stop-motion “Shaun the Sheep Movie,” Ale Abreu’s hand-drawn, wordless fantasia “Boy and the World” and a mystical tale from the legendary Studio Ghibli animation house in Japan, “When Marnie Was Here”–Beckman is confident the message is getting across, at least to the Academy.

“The medium has so much untapped possibility, and people are opening their minds to the idea that there’s a world of animation outside our borders, and a world of animation that isn’t what you think animation is,” he said.

“In live action, you have every imaginable type of picture, from popcorn movies to rom-coms to nonlinear pictures. And in animation, there’s no reason you can’t have the exact same range–if anything, you’re more freed up to do anything you want.

“Boy and the World,” he said, is “a really special film – I love the idea that Ale Abreu, with a very small budget and no constraints, can make the film that was in his heart, get love on the festival circuit and then get the recognition from the Academy’s Animation Branch.”

When Marnie Was There
“When Marnie Was There”

Beckman’s other nominee, “When Marnie Was There,” is from the company that may be more important than any other in the formation of GKIDS. “Studio Ghibli is one of the reasons we’re in the business,” he said. “Disney was so successful, and understandably so, that they helped define animation in a very specific way in the U.S.

“But then [Hayao] Miyazaki came along, and it was really a new direction for animation.”

The Oscar nominations, he said, are “a great marketing tool. For some movies, it’s more important than others. With ‘Marnie,’ we’re in our home video window now, and well certainly add some more theatrical plays. Hopefully more people will seek it out on its home-video platform.

“For a film like ‘Boy in the World,’ it makes a huge difference. Now everyone from journalists to theater buyers to a potential audience will hear about film, and every distributor throughout the world for the film has seen the value increase. And Ale Abreu has had his life transformed. That to me is the big satisfaction.”

And if he’s tempted to gloat about his company’s remarkable track record in Oscar nominations, Beckman tries to hold back. “We’ve had years where we had no Oscar nominations, and I try to be humble about this stuff,” he said. “But obviously years like this make up for a lot of hard days.”

Alicia Vikander Wrap magazine cover
Photographed for TheWrap by Patrick Fraser