Gotham nominees a case of double identity?

By nominating films that are neither independently financed nor New York-centric, the Gotham Awards have raised questions about their true raison d'etre.

"I don't think the Gotham Awards are about independent film," says Independent Feature Project executive director Michelle Byrd, the leader of her group's 16-year-old awards ceremony.

A surprising statement -- some would say admission -- coming from the head of one of the largest independent film organizations in the country, but it might help explain some of the controversy that has enveloped this year's awards. First of all, several of this year's top nominees aren't independently financed; second, many of the films and filmmakers being honored have tenuous ties at best to New York, which seems to directly contradict the Gothams' original mission.

"We're celebrating almost a style of working, in all genres and budget levels," says Byrd, adding that, in order to not confuse matters, the IFP hasn't used its full legal name in more than a decade. "The importance of filmmaking is the author's voice, which drives people to make independent films."

This year's lineup of best feature contenders pits Sony's $40 million costume drama "Marie Antoinette" against ThinkFilm's $1 million no-frills drama about a drug-addicted teacher, "Half Nelson." To some in the independent film community, this is a fair playing field where the best film wins.

"'Half Nelson' gains by being grouped together with bigger films and winning," IFP board member Anthony Bregman says. And one of the film's producers, Lynette Howell, says it's terrific for her film to even be nominated alongside "high-caliber films with much bigger budgets."

"It's about honoring films made with a single vision versus films made by committee," Bregman adds, agreeing with IFP board chairman Ira Deutchmann that the line between independent and nonindependent films has become hopelessly blurred. "The single most independent filmmaker is George Lucas," Deutchmann says, "and there are people making $11 million movies who are making studio movies."

But others -- like Bregman's longtime producing partner and former IFP member Ted Hope -- cry foul. "I don't know what the Gotham Awards mean anymore," he says. "I'd like that defined." Hope notes that there have been three stages in the program's evolution: awarding New York filmmakers and people in New York; the addition of competitive film categories; and today's incarnation, where "anything goes."

"If the founding fathers of the IFP were choosing the nominees, they would have all independent films as representative of the best films out there," says Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard, an early IFP member whose "Capote" won best feature at the Gothams last year. "The reason the IFP formed was to help the independent filmmaker, but it seems its priorities have changed."

"I think it's very disappointing and curious, but then I'm also disappointed in the direction (Film Independent's) Spirit Awards have taken," IFC Entertainment president Jonathan Sehring adds, referring to Film Independent's decision to raise the budget cap on Spirit nominees to $20 million. "When the Independent Feature Project feels like they can honor (Warner Bros. Pictures') 'The Departed' and a film like (IFC Films') 'Sherrybaby' gets overlooked (for best feature), it's disheartening for anyone who doesn't work for a Hollywood studio."

Unlike at the Spirits, films that are up for prizes at the Gothams are selected by committees comprised of film critics, curators and festival programrs, not IFP members. As Bregman notes, these cineastes might highlight movies like Shadow Distribution's docu nominee "Following Sean" or choose a critical darling like Martin Scorsese, even when his movie costs $90 million. "We have no control over what the jury does, and we don't put shackles on them," Deutchmann says.

The IFP could set limits on what qualifies, but that's not a direction Byrd wants to take. "That's something the (Spirit Awards) does," she says. "To recharacterize the Gothams as that but on the East Coast is silly."

She does leave open the door, however, for changes that might address the criticism the Gothams have received. "We revisit our criteria every year," she says.

Byrd also notes that the four selection committees and the five juries often choose indie films anyway. "If you were to remove the two of the best feature nominees with high budgets, proportionately speaking, there are more microbudgeted films," she says.

Byrd is not wrong: Films Philos and Seventh Art Releasing are represented alongside larger indies such as ThinkFilm, Samuel Goldwyn Films/Roadside Attractions and the studio specialty divisions. "We're a nonprofit. Nothing we do is abusive," Byrd says, noting that the Gothams are the IFP's only fundraiser and net roughly $500,000 each year for the group's $2.2 million annual budget.

"If I had exclusively studio classics divisions as nominees, that's better for me, frankly," laughs Byrd, referring to the awards tables, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars and are far more affordable for a specialty division than a small indie like Kino International.

The tables themselves have been the subject of some debate, though Byrd insists that all nominees are accommodated one way or another. Indeed, Kino general manager Gary Palmucci says that with "some very generous cooperation from the IFP," he'll have at least two Kino representatives and three or four producers of his best feature nominee "Old Joy" -- which had a budget of about $125,000 -- in the audience.

Despite the fallout, Deutchmann and Byrd say there was no controversy during IFP board meetings. The main internal debate, they explain, was over whether to expand the ceremony as a TV show. The event will be broadcast on NYC-TV, with segments presented on iFilm.com.

There's also no debate about the ceremony itself. Sehring, Hope and many other critics look forward to one of the few evenings that unites much of New York's film community.

While some bemoan the loss of a group honoring indie films, feature nominating committee member and film critic Karen Durbin isn't one of them. "If a film can be proven to be under the control of the filmmaker, then the Gothams will accept it for submission. If it gives studios a reason to keep their hands off original projects, then I think it's fair," she says. "Besides, I hate this welfare-ish mentality of rewarding low-budget films. You don't give someone the (Man) Booker Prize just because their novel comes from a small publisher."
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