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What the 'Kells'?

How did this film manage to snag an Oscar spot alongside films that cost over $100 million dollars with $50 million marketing and promotion budgets? How did it manage to beat out DreamWorks, or even the deity of animation, Miyazaki himself?

As I was saying a week or three back:

…Coraline - Fantastic Mr. Fox - The Princess and the Frog - The Secret of Kells – Up… A very interesting and for the most part expected line-up. For me the only surprise is Kells; where the hell did that come from? It only played for one weekend here in NYC in a children's film festival, no commercial release. (And I managed to miss it too; now I’ve got to track it down.)…

Where the hell did that come from, indeed. Turned out I only had to go back to a 2008 piece I wrote for AWN about a Cartoon Network series Skunk Fu!, to jog my memory:

With their first series an international success, [Paul] Young and the rest of Cartoon Saloon are looking ahead to a second Skunk Fu! season…They've also set their sights on the big screen with the feature film version of that long-ago promo/pitch summer project from the then-new Cartoon Saloon, Brendan and the Secret of Kells. "It's a mixture of Irish mythology and actual history, based on a thousand-year-old illuminated manuscript, The Book of Kells."

Directed by Tomm Moore, the film "is a co-production with the people who did The Triplets of Belleville and it's nearly finished. It'll be in theaters here in January, distributed by Disney. It's going to be one of the only pure 2D features coming out and it's an amazing film, animated on paper and with painted backgrounds. We're currently in negotiation with U.S. distributors."

Okay, that explains its provenance: Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon animation studio – but how did it manage to snag an Oscar spot alongside films that cost over a hundred million dollars with $50 million marketing and promotion budgets? How did it manage to beat out DreamWorks, or even the deity of animation, Miyazaki himself (whose spellbinding Ponyo is as worthy of that golden statue as any of the lucky five) for a nomination?

“I first heard about Kells ages ago,” says Eric Beckman, founder of the ongoing New York International Children’s Festival. “They [the Saloon] were pretty public how they were going about making it. We’d seen film clips, concept art early on. We were excited about the film and among first to say we want to premiere this film in the U.S. I told them I’d love to be part of the film – little did I know how big a part of the film we’d end up being.”

Beckman did indeed premiere the film this past summer, at one of the Festival’s weekend screenings that run throughout the year. (Its annual ‘real’ Festival begins this Friday February 26th and continues through March 21 - and yes, additional showings of Kells have been added, along with several other popular films; head to the festival’s website – and click on ‘Films’ for the entire schedule.)

“Our first decision was: whether to qualify Kells for this year’s Oscars or waiting until the 2011 awards. We knew what the competition would be like this year with so many wonderful films in the animation category. It was an interesting choice to go ahead, but we said the film is here now, let’s do it now and not wait.

“I’d always rather do something now than wait a year later to do it. We made the decision knowing the film was not going to be [in wide release] prior to Oscars – that was a given. So it’s like anything; you sort of look at the hand you’re dealt and figure out make the best of it.

“What did we have going for us? We had a drop-dead gorgeous movie that didn’t look like any other film; we already had a pretty large group of people in the animation community that were not just fans but passionate about the movie – people who reached out and asked ‘how can we help?’

To use a 21st-century buzzword, Kells’ animation pro fans started up a viral campaign to spread the word via Emails, Facebook and plain old word of mouth – backed up by a serious on-the-ground game. Their goal: “to make sure everyone in the LA area and other animation production hubs get to see film and weigh in on whether it should be nominated or not - as simple as that.”

Screenings were set up at all the big boys’ studios (“Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks, Sony, a bunch of other places – sometimes more than once”), local animation schools along with a private screening or two.

“We reached out to ASIFA and Women in Animation; we got hundreds of screeners into the hands of our super fans to get them out to people, to ask people please please please come see this movie during the qualifying run.

“To qualify for the Oscar you have to play one week in a commercial theater in Los Angeles County. We chose the AMC Burbank 8 – right in town close to where all the animators work [two blocks from Cartoon Network Studios and just over the I-5 from Nickelodeon on West Olive Avenue] to make it easy for them to come see it.

“What we didn’t do and why it ended up being a stealth campaign, everyone told us ‘you have to take out big ads in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter and advertise at all the major animation sites.’ Do we really need print advertising to reach the hundreds of people we need to reach? It doesn’t seem like the best use of resources or effort. In fact, there’s some benefit in letting people discover and help spread the word about the movie.

“People really did [feel like they had a personal stake in Kells’ success]. I’m not a psychologist, and I certainly don’t want to be an animator psychologist, but I had a feeling we had a couple of things going for us and I started to get optimistic pretty early on. You’re an animator and you’ve dedicated yourself to making beautiful things on film. Most animators don’t get to work on their own projects, they get to work on Pete Docter’s or somebody else’s project. That may be exciting but meantime you’re working on your own side project and making your own short films.

“Then along comes Tomm Moore (Kells’ director and writer) and creates a gorgeous feature length film that is his vision – as a little independent guy. You get the feeling that people want to support that kind of filmmaking and see people make a film for three million or five million or nine million that’s every bit as gorgeous as Wall-E.”

Joe Strike's picture
Joe Strike, aka “The Miscweant” has written about animation for the New York Daily News, Newsday, New York Press,, and for more than a decade, Animation World Network.