Gotham Awards: Netflix Makes Big Strides With Indie Community

Monday night's Gotham Awards opened with remarks from the head of the Independent Film Project, the organization that supports New York indie filmmaking and hosts the annual awards ceremony at Cipriana Wall Street — but it would have been just as appropriate if it opened with the familiar bum-bum noise that precedes everything that screens on Netflix.

It was that big a night for the streaming service that, for years, was feared by many high-brow journalists and art house filmmakers as a threat to cinema itself, but managed to win over both constituencies this year — the former served on Gotham Award nominating committees, the latter on the committees that picked winners — to the extent that 'content' from the service claimed five of the event's eight film-specific awards.

Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story won four top prizes — best feature, best actor (Adam Driver), best screenplay (Baumbach) and the audience award — besting formidable competition like The Farewell and Uncut Gems. And Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert's American Factory was tapped as best documentary, topping chief rivals Apollo 11, from Neon, and One Child Nation, from Amazon.

Moreover, the people who accepted those awards — and others — made a point of issuing specific and heartfelt thanks to Netflix for its support of the indie community.

Baumbach, accepting best screenplay honors (his first of four trips to the podium over the course of the evening), effused, to appreciative applause from an audience comprised largely on New Yorkers: "I want to thank Netflix for their partnership and support — and also for rescuing the Paris Theatre,” a reference to Netflix's recent purchase and reopening (with Marriage Story) of the Big Apple's last single-screen theater, which had gone out of business earlier in the year.

Later, accepting the best feature prize, Baumbach added, "I'll get a little more specific, in that I would like to also thank [Netflix's chief content officer] Ted Sarandos and Netflix for supporting this movie unconditionally. This was my tenth movie. I've worked for probably about nine companies ... who distributed my movies, but it does feel like what I always sort of dreamed of when I started as a filmmaker: that I would have a home and a place. And I want to thank you for that, Ted."

In-between those awards, four pre-announced Gotham Award tributes were bestowed. One was presented by Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, the Little Women director (and Baumbach's girlfriend), to Laura Dern, who starred in both of their films. And another went to helmer Ava DuVernay. Dern, in her acceptance speech, heaped praise on Netflix, which she likened to United Artists in the 1970s. And DuVernay said that the only time she has enjoyed the sort of creative freedom that she felt on her first film, a micro-budget indie, was when she made the 2016 documentary 13th and the 2019 limited series When They See Us for Netflix. (Incidentally, When They See Us was announced as the winner of the best breakthrough series – longform Gotham Award later in the evening.)

Just a few years ago — heck, maybe even just a year ago, as Roma was gaining awards momentum and many were growing worried — it was unfathomable that Netflix could be embraced to this degree by the indie community. I generally discount the larger significance of Gotham Award results — nominations and winners — if only because so few people are actually involved in the decision-making. But the very fact that so many of these different small committees reached the same conclusion about Netflix — that its aforementioned projects are good enough to outweigh any reservations committee members may have about its platform — strikes me as pretty notable.

In other notable news, The Farewell's Awkwafina — heretofore best known for the major studio comedies Ocean's Eight and Crazy Rich Asians — earned best actress honors over the likes of Clemency's Alfre Woodard, Midsommar's Florence Pugh and Her Smell's Elisabeth Moss, Oscar contenders all. Most assume that the corresponding Oscar race has only two open slots, with three assured for Judy's Renee Zellweger, Bombshell's Charlize Theron and Marriage Story's Scarlett Johansson (even if she was inexplicably snubbed by the Gotham Awards' nominating committee). A win like this could help to boost Awkwafina's profile and prospects moving forward.

A24 notched another win when Waves' Taylor Russell was named best breakthrough actor/actress. And Focus picked up one when The Mustang's Laure De Clermont-Tonnerre won best breakthrough director honors over higher-profile competition including Booksmart's Olivia Wilde.

A24's Uncut Gems and The Last Black Man in San Francisco came in to the night tied with Marriage Story and The Farewell for the most noms — three apiece — but they each went home empty-handed, as did STX's Hustlers (a best feature nominee); A24's The Lighthouse and Midsommar; Amazon's Honey Boy; and Neon's Clemency, among others, not great news for those campaigns.