Gotham Awards never the same show twice

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APPLE CORE: Dialogues with this year's Gotham honorees

No one can accuse the Independent Feature Project of rigidity. Faced with a chorus of conflicting cheers and boos over last year's Gotham Awards nominees and winners, IFP's board sat down and scrutinized the reviews of their most visible, annual affair. Defining independent film may be a tired subject, but defining what deserves honoring at the Gothams -- which will be held at Brooklyn's Steiner Studios tonight -- is a subject up for yearly debate, and yearly change. Above all, board members wanted to avoid the free-for-all process that led to the nomination of 2005's "The Departed" as best feature.

They ended up modifying the Gothams' mission statement, which now reads that the best films are made by filmmaker and not committee, with an "economy of means."

Which does not exactly clear things up. "It's open to interpretation," explains IFP executive director Michelle Byrd. "We felt it was really important not to reduce everything down to the numbers game of boxoffice and budgets."

"After last year, we did feel that a certain amount of small tweaking to the mission statement might help give the jury a little bit more direction," says Ira Deutchman, president and CEO of Emerging Pictures and an IFP board member. "The indications on the surface are that it did have the impact that we wanted."

Ambiguous or not, this year's nominations suggest the selection committee may have overcorrected once they got the message. The best features category contains no films with budgets higher than $20 million, and it's a diverse playing field. Industry vets Sean Penn (Paramount Vantage's "Into the Wild") and Mira Nair (Fox Searchlight's "The Namesake"; Nair will also receive a tribute award at the ceremony) are in the mix, while newcomer Craig Zobel snagged a nomination for Magnolia Pictures' "Great World of Sound."

To hear selection committee member Owen Gleiberman tell it, the varied competition was just common sense. "We're past the moment in which we have to have the discussion about what defines independent film," says the Entertainment Weekly film critic. "We were given no directive. We wanted to draw a line between specialty division films and studio films. Once you nominate a studio film ... the whole meaning of the awards evaporates."

Still, there is that temptation to strew the Gothams with bigger names and bigger projects. As the first major ceremony held honoring a year's films, the Gothams often raise eyebrows, and an early nod there can get the awards ball rolling. Nascent Oscar campaign murmurings can obscure the event's practical purpose as a fundraiser.

"We could do this better, but we're looking for a way to succinctly explain who we are and what we do on a year-round basis," says Byrd.

Such searching has led to expansion and relocation. After 16 years at Chelsea Piers' Pier Sixty, this year's event is being held at Brooklyn's Steiner Studios, at the invitation of co-owner Doug Steiner. Additionally, organizers are taking the ceremony nationwide with new distribution partnerships. Locally the Gothams are seen in an edited version on WNYC-TV; now the show (with exclusive highlights and profiles of the nominees) will be distributed online by Netflix and via satellite on the Documentary Channel. IFP is expecting a potential audience of 20 million. And for the first time, IFP held a series of events open to the public to preview Gotham Awards nominees and honorees.

Such developments may raise the Gothams' profile while simultaneously making the Gotham identity harder to define. It's an issue that's been ongoing since at least 2004, when IFP first introduced competitive awards to its annual event, which broadened the pool of names who could be honored and invited, but stripped away some local quirks.

"Initially, it was supposed to support the New York community," says Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Entertainment and another one of this year's tribute award recipients. "I'm not sure if that's still the mandate, but it's a great night for New Yorkers."

According to Mark Urman, head of U.S. theatrical for ThinkFilm, which won best feature last year for "Half Nelson," the target audience is even larger than that.

"There's a tendency to think it's only for filmmaking in New York," he says. "It really is the film industry at large celebrating the New York film community."

But interests of the IFP and its local environment aside, the Gothams also provide a major platform for films in need of audience boosts. While "Great World of Sound" had a meager boxoffice reception, its stature as a critical darling resulted in nominations in three of the ceremony's six categories, more than any other film. "Before, it was known by (festivalgoers) and the savvy indie scene," says David Gordon Green, one of the film's producers and a director himself. "Now it can find an awareness in the New York film community."

Naturally, not everyone is thrilled. "It's probably a reflection of how fair the process is that every year I walk away being disappointed about something," says Deutchman, whose company is releasing the John Sayles-directed "Honeydripper," which didn't make the cut.

He's not alone. Bob Berney, president of nominations-free Picturehouse, allows that his slate didn't include much for the Gothams this year, but adds, "It's important that, as a company, we support (the Gothams)." He adds that he's expecting love later on -- from the Independent Spirit Awards -- for the comedy "Rocket Science."

Still, the Gothams have one distinguishing category: "Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You," which has often helped festival hits find distribution.

"We didn't know if (the award) was good or not," recalls Steve Barron, whose independently financed feature "Choking Man" won last year and was released by International Film Circuit on Nov. 9. "Then the night came along and we won. Afterwards, a lot of people wanted to talk about the film for distribution."

This year, the nominees include "Frownland," a cult hit on the festival circuit. "I've been told that the movie is far too wayward to fit in with current market trends," says director Ronald Bronstein, "but I suspect that this impression could shift if the work continues to earn the approbation of institutions like the Gothams."

Most distributors insist that the category doesn't function as an advertising campaign. "It's really about exposing those films to the media," Urman insists. "We don't overlook films. We just make tough decisions."

Either way, the category provides the connection between the Gothams' quasi-studio honorees and smaller productions, continually perpetuating the ambiguity of "independent film."

"It's a brand," Byrd says of the term. "You can only be on the outside for so long before the culture finds you."   


Gothams 101

Introducing ... The Gotham Awards started 16 years ago by the Independent Feature Project, which has hosted the event every year. This year, in preparation for the awards ceremony, IFP hosted several events around the city, including tributes to honorees Mira Nair and Javier Bardem at the IFC Center and BAM, respectively; contenders in the "Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You" category screened at the Museum of Moving Images.

Party Central Brooklyn's Steiner Studios is a mammoth production space recently used by Hollywood projects like Sony's "Spider-Man 3." The 270,000-square-foot building, built on the historic site of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, features five soundstages. The entire awards ceremony will take place within a single soundstage.

List of Events The Gothams comprise six awards: best feature, best documentary, breakthrough director, breakthrough actor, "Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You" and best ensemble cast (this category will change in 2008 to best ensemble performance). Nominees are chosen by critics, curators and members of the industry, and a separate jury selects the winners. The ceremony also features six award tributes and will be hosted by Dave Karger this year. For the first time, the show will air on the Documentary Channel (last year, the entire program was posted on iFilm.com). The IFP also plans to produce a related documentary for Netflix.   
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