Pat Hubley was sitting in a theater full of 5- to 8-year-olds in Toronto, watching a foreign language film, when he caught the big vision of children's cinema.
The film was in Swedish with English subtitles. Someone reading the lines could be heard over the sound system for those kids who needed help. And they didn't miss a beat.
"They were paying attention, laughing in all the right spots," he recalls. "It was a moviegoing experience for them. It was wonderful."
Hubley, artistic director at the Utah Film Center, is expecting the same during this year's Sundance Film Festival, which has the new category of children's movies for the 2014 event that runs Jan. 16-26. The Sundance Kids section will feature the world premiere of the English-language version of the acclaimed French animation film "Ernest and Celestine" and the U.S. premiere of "Zip & Zap and the Marble Gang," a live-action youth adventure from Spain.
Sundance collaborated with the Utah Film Center, which has put on a local children's film festival for the past four years, to select the films that will debut in what Sundance officials hope will become a mainstay for the festival. In its 30-year history, Sundance has raised the profile of the independent and foreign documentary genres to world prominence and has introduced independent filmmaking to a broader U.S. audience.
"What we love about (Sundance Kids) is it's creating a love for independent film at a young age," said Trevor Groth, the festival's director of programming. "That’s an important component of what the festival does ... nurturing a love for a different kind of storytelling in film. Starting at a young age is important for us and looking at our future."
A missing piece
Sundance has long reached out to a younger audience through its student screening program, which invites Utah schoolteachers to bring their high school students to the festival to view films vetted by festival staff for youths.
But Sundance Kids marks the first time a category at Sundance has been dedicated to children's film.
Groth said the idea has existed for years but the execution was a challenge. "Films produced for youth is a different world," he said. "It would take a lot of resources to extend out (into children's film) and track films the way we do for our other categories."
That's when Hubley and the Utah Film Center came into the picture. Hubley, a veteran of the Toronto and Sundance film festivals, came to the center with the hope of launching a children's film festival. He had experience working for the children's festival in Toronto, called Tiff Kids.
"It’s happening in other larger urban environments, but it wasn’t happening here, which I thought was a little strange because I think we live in a very cinema-friendly, cinema-literate community with lots of children," he said. "But there was something missing here for a younger audience, nothing specific for kids and youth."
So Hubley launched Tumbleweeds, an annual children's film festival now in its fourth year, to bring independent and foreign films to Utah's families and children. The program also holds monthly screenings in communities across the state.
Groth said Sundance liked what Hubley had developed at Tumbleweeds and asked him to help put together a children's film section for Sundance.
Finding good children's films is not much different from finding good work in other genres, according to Hubley and others. While many films aimed at an adult audience would not be appropriate for children, a successful children's film engages both young and old.
"We don’t want to make films that operate on one level for kids and then have all these insider jokes for adults, like you are watching two separate movies," said Dave Jesteadt, director of distribution at GKids, which produced the English version of and is the distributor for "Ernest and Celestine."
He explained the hallmark of a good children's film is when all ages are drawn in by the same story.
Independent and foreign films introduce new and creative ways of storytelling to an American audience whose exposure to children's programming is largely either cartoons on TV or Disney.
Hubley, Jesteadt and Groth praise the work of Disney and Dreamworks. But they note the formulaic storytelling of Hollywood's big studios gives audiences only one dimension of how a story can be told.
For instance, the soft watercolor animation of "Ernest and Celestine" is a stark contrast to the brightly colored, almost lifelike animation produced in Hollywood studios.
"It’s like studio films verses independent films," Groth said. "There are a lot of terrific studio films, but it’s nice to have the choice of independent work as well. I think the same is true in films for youth. The more diversity and choice, the better."
Hubley added that foreign children's films are also effective at exposing younger American audiences to different cultures, experiences and languages.
With 14 years in the film festival business, a good portion of it in children's cinema, Hubley doesn't share the concerns that kids can't appreciate those cultural nuances or have the patience to read subtitles.
"Good stories transcend cultural and language boundaries," he said. "Children are sophisticated in how they understand stories and appreciate films."
The long view
Although children's film festivals have existed around the country for as long as Sundance, being part of a festival such as Sundance could help elevate the profile of independent and foreign language children's film, said Hubley, who with a colleague from Toronto selected the two films premiering at Sundance.
"Sundance helped establish the documentary and nonfiction genre as more popular, and you could see the same with these types of children’s films," he said.
Groth anticipates a similar trajectory for children's films, not just in terms of expanding a viewing audience but also for fostering new ideas among filmmakers.
"In doing it this year, we are very happy with the films we found," he said. "But I think there is a lot of room to expand the notion of what an all-ages film can look and feel like. We are sort of just scratching the surface now."
Jestaedt said it's not unrealistic to envision a child seeing the films this year debuting his or her own film at Sundance 20 years from now.
"Everyone has to start somewhere," he said. "Some of the things we remember most fondly are our earliest film memories."
If you go …
What: “Ernest and Celestine”
Screenings: Jan. 18 and 25, 12:30 p.m., Redstone at Kimball Junction, 6030 N. Market St., Park City; Jan. 19, 2 p.m., Salt Lake City Library, 210 E. 400 South
What: “Zip & Zap and the Marble Gang”
Screenings: Jan. 18, 3:30 p.m., and Jan. 25, 1 p.m., Redstone at Kimball Junction, 6030 N. Market St., Park City; Jan. 19, 11 a.m., Salt Lake City Library, 210 E. 400 South