Gotham Awards: "Quirky" Ceremony Occupies Wall Street

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Awards season hits the East Coast on Dec. 1

This story first appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

To vote in the Oscars, you have to be a member of the Academy. To vote for the Golden Globes, you have to be a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. To vote for the Gotham Independent Film Awards, you have to be a member of the New York-based Independent Film Project, and then be appointed to one of several panels made up of small groups of critics, journalists, film curators and other independent film insiders -- but only after a separate nominating committee has vetted the names of the possible entrants and certified them as official nominations.

OK, so it's not exactly the People's Choice. In fact, the Gothams may well be the most elite, rarefied and insular movie awards of the whole season (they also are the only ones held on Wall Street, at the Cipriani outpost across the street from the Museum of American Finance). But the ceremony, which is being held Dec. 1, does serve an important function in the awards season ecosystem. "We're quirky," says Joana Vicente, executive director of IFP, which has run the show since it began in 1991. "Our choices are quirky. But what makes us quirky is also what makes people pay attention. We put a spotlight on the independent films and actors who aren't part of the conversation and give them the opportunity to be a part of the season. We're a launching pad."

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How quirky are they? Take this year's best actress race. It positions well-known stars such as Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin), Julianne Moore (Still Alice) and Patricia Arquette (Boyhood) against less-known actresses in low-profile films, including Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beyond the Lights) and Mia Wasikowska (Tracks) -- and makes things even more quirky by mixing lead and supporting roles. But here's the difference: At the Gothams, it's the lesser-known star in the unseen film who often has the advantage. Last year, Johansson was up for Don Jon, along with Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine, but the winner was Brie Larson for Short Term 12, a film about a home for troubled teenagers that played in only 75 theaters and barely grossed $1 million.

"In 2010, we called attention to Beginners," says Vicente. "And then its star Christopher Plummer went on to win the Oscar for best supporting actor. Even last year, when we gave best actor to Matthew McConaughey, he was not a shoo-in like his [Dallas Buyers Club] co-star Jared Leto. His Gotham gave distributors confidence [to push for the Oscar]."

This year's best actor race pits big names such as Ethan Hawke (Boyhood) and Michael Keaton (Birdman) against Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year), Bill Hader (The Skeleton Twins) and Miles Teller (whose turn in Whiplash makes him a long-shot candidate for an Oscar nomination), while the best feature contest mixes indie crowd-pleasers Birdman and Boyhood with lesser-seen titles such as Love Is Strange. And then there's the breakthrough actor award, which all but requires obscurity as a prerequisite for being nominated (this year, it's between Blue Ruin's Macon Blair, Wish I Was Here's Joey King and Dear White People's Tessa Thompson, among others you've probably never heard of). "It was interesting in our discussions this year how few of the big Oscar-bait vehicles generated passion among the nominators," says THR's New York-based theater and film critic David Rooney, who has served on a nominating panel for the past two years. "The Gothams operate under no mandate to set the tone for the Oscars."

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Actually, there is one ray of populism in Gotham's byzantine selection process: the Gotham Independent Film Audience Award, which is chosen much like Film Independent's Spirit Awards -- the Gothams' more casual, West Coast rival. Instead of a few judges on panels, the audience award is chosen by the entire IFP membership, or at least those who bother to cast their ballots online. This year, the competition includes Dear White People, Nightcrawler, Citizenfour, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, It Felt Like Love, Actress and eight other films, one or two of which you actually might have seen.