The Kells Conundrum

The Secret of Kells is a fantastic film and easily one of the best made in recent times. It’s highly original, dripping with beautiful animation and stands up to countless rewatching. On the surface, it appears to be the perfect animate feature, so why has it been so hard for it to find the same kind of commercial success that say, Frozen can (outside of the obvious reason of throwing hundreds of millions at it)? I call it the Kells Conundrum and it’s a concept we’re going to discuss today.


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Costing roughly about 6.5 million (just under $9 million), the theatrical run for the Secret of Kells in the US brought in just under $677,000 based on a 21 week run back in 2010. Setting aside the fact that it was also released in Europe and Ireland before that for a minute. The numbers make for some depressing reading. Just how can a film that is so wonderful apparently come up so short in one of the largest markets in the world? There are a number of factors that had an impact, and they all represent hurdles that any animated films has to overcome to be successful.

The Lack Of An Overarching Studio Brand

Make no mistake, even though the days when Disney was the only name in town are long gone, animated films are still heavily, almost despondently, impacted by the fact that Disney’s decades-long legacy is often synonymous with animated films. Despite many attempts by many people, only Pixar managed to usurp the crown and it succeeded (ironically enough) thanks to Disney’s joint venture with them and a wholly new CGI look.

Anyone trying to sell a film that doesn’t have the Disney name on it faces numerous challenges, not least of which is convincing people to actually see the film. The standard that the Disney name represents is so ingrained in the public’s mind, that anyone else isn’t so much viewed with suspicion as curiosity. Everyone knows a Disney film is safe for kids, but research is needed for almost anyone else. That kind of mental overhead can be too much for many, and leaves independent films out in the cold.

Design, Look and Style

Combining all of these into one lump is appropriate. Plenty of independent films have a certain ‘look’ to them that is not, well, familiar to audiences and hence not popular. Laika have done an excellent job of moulding their own style, but have been able to do so after the release of more than one film. If a studio is on their first, they may not attain the necessary emotional connection to the public that they need.

The Kells Conundrum rears its head insofar that the film is well designed and has the kind of style that should be instantly popular with audiences. Yet the style and look of the film aren’t enough on their own to attract people in to view it; another hurdle to clear.


Many independent films often cobble their funding together from a variety of sources. These often include grants from public and private bodies. The upside is the greater creative freedom that they provide; the downside is that they often reduce the pressure to be commercially successful. That poses perhaps the biggest problem. A film like Kells ought to have been very successful and have obvious commercial appeal. Yet the film required public funds just to get made, let alone turn a profit.

This forms part of the Conundrum; films that are innovative and explore new creative directions are often deemed to be not commercially viable so when they eventually find the funding to be made, they inevitably perform rather modestly in relation to their potential. How can independent films overcome this? Perhaps public funding could come with a few caveats related to revenue generation, or it could be required that a commercial partner be found to undertake greater efforts at revenue extraction.

That’s not to say that commerce should drive artistic decisions in all independent films, but if the film isn not being made for explicitly artistic reasons, then there should be a good dose of business sense injected into the film in the subtlest way possible.


One of the final pieces of the Kells Conundrum is distribution. Independent films have to contend with large cinema chains in the US that will only carry films they feel will actually put butts on seats. A large studio and/or distributor will generally guarantee that, but many independent films can only get deals with independent distributors; who have neither the pull or the finances to attain a widespread release.

Thus, brilliant films often can’t even get situated to be able to attract the very audience they need to succeed. This isn’t to downplay the excellent job that GKIDS did with Kells; if anything, they did remarkably well getting it into screens in most parts of the country. The issue is that they had to rely on smaller, independent cinemas that have a habit of operating outside of the general public’s consciousness. Ergo; most consumers are more likely to simply head to their local chain omniplex than to seek out more exciting material being screened elsewhere.

Conclusion: it’s Complicated

The Kells Conundrum comes down to the fact that many aspects of animated film production have to balanced against others. Commercial funding can make a film very generic, while a national distribution deal will increase marketing costs to the point where more is spent on that than on the film itself, stripping away profits in the process. That has to be balanced against giving it the largest possible audience or seeking out niche markets where it can command a higher price from fewer consumers.

Couple all of that to the fact that tickets alone will not refund a film’s cost any more. Merchandise is an integral part of the pie nowadays and small studios often do not have the infrastructure or contacts to get a merchandise operation in motion.

What it comes down to is: can creative, independent films find a way to succeed without giving up the very things that make them so great to begin with?