Do Gotham Awards Nominations Actually Impact Oscar Race? (Analysis)

Nominees and winners are determined by small committees using vague criteria.
"Midnight in Paris"

This morning, the IFP announced the nominees for the 21st annual Gotham Independent Film Awards. It would be nice if I could tell you to read into the fact that:

  • The Descendants and Martha Marcy May Marlene, two Fox Searchlight films, led the field with three nominations each;
  • Beginners, The Descendants, Meek's Cutoff, Take Shelter, and The Tree of Life were nominated for the best feature Gotham, but 50/50, Drive, Jane Eyre, Like Crazy, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Midnight in Paris, Pariah, Rampart, and We Need to Talk About Kevin were not;
  • The Descendants has followed in the footsteps of The Hurt Locker (2008) and Winter's Bone (2009) -- two films that went on to score best picture, best director, best lead performance, and best screenplay Oscar nods -- by nabbing Gotham nods for best feature, best ensemble, and best breakthrough actor (Locker and Bone won the first two); and
  • Felicity Jones (Like Crazy), Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene), or Shailene Woodley (The Descendants), the highest-profile nominees for best breakthrough actor, will almost certainly win that category and go on to receive an Oscar nod, based on the fact that five its last seven winners did so: Catalina Sandino Moreno for Maria Full of Grace (2004), Amy Adams for Junebug (2005), Rinko Kikuchi for Babel (2006), Ellen Page for Juno (2007), and Melissa Leo for Frozen River (2008)

STORY: Gotham Award Noms Go to 'The Descendants' and 'Martha Marcy May Marlene'

But the reality is that I cannot, because:

  • Gotham nominations and wins are really a reflection of nothing more than the tastes of the five-person "committees" -- "comprised of film critics, festival programmers and others not directly engaged in the production and distribution of films" -- that are arbitrarily selected and assigned to the various categories by the IFP.
  • The nomination criteria for best feature, which is supposed to celebrate indie films, is so vague -- to be eligible a film must be American, have a distributor, and have been made "with an economy of means" -- that nominees have included everything from Ballast (2008), a micro-budget film with a no-name distributor, to Into the Wild (2007), a $15 million Paramount film, to The Departed, a $90 million Warner Brothers film.
  • The nomination criteria for best breakthrough actor is equally suspect. For example, in 2008, The Visitor and The Wrestler were nominated for best feature, and Melissa Leo was nominated for best breakthrough actor, but Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) and Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler) -- two veterans who, like Leo, experienced career breakthroughs that year -- were not also listed among the breakthrough actor nominees. (Part of the issue is that there is no cohesion between the selections in categories, since different people choose the nominees and winners for each of them.)
  • The winners of best breakthrough actor have sometimes been spot-on, in terms of predicting breakthroughs... but in the last two years has been anything but that, based on the selection of Catalina Saavedra for The Maid over Jeremy Renner for The Hurt Locker (in 2009) and Ronald Bronstein for Daddy Longlegs over Jennifer Lawrence for Winter's Bone (in 2010). Saavedra and Bronstein may have given worthy performances, but their "breakthroughs" were not then and still are not yet evident to anyone but the committee that chose them.

STORY: Gary Oldman, Charlize Theron and David Cronenberg to Be Feted at the Gotham Awards

As I look over this year's list of Gotham nominees, it's as hard as ever to understand how the best feature category could include films with budgets ranging from merely $2 million (Meek's Cutoff) all the way up to a not-very-indie $32 million (The Tree of Life), and possibly even higher (since nobody at Fox Searchlight will reveal the budget of The Descendants). And, since The Tree of Life was eligible for best feature with that $32 million budget, then one can only conclude that Midnight in Paris -- which is widely believed to be a stronger best picture Oscar contender than any of the films nominated for Gotham Awards this year -- was also eligible with its $30 million budget, and that the various nomination committees simply deemed it unworthy of recognition in any category. That strikes me as bizarre. Also completely shut out: 50/50, Albert Nobbs, Another Happy Day, Drive, Jane Eyre, Melancholia, My Week with Marilyn, Rampart, The Way, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and The Whistleblower.

Still, despite their inexplicable eccentricities, the Gothams can -- and often do -- serve an important purpose by calling attention to some films that might not otherwise receive it -- sometimes in the aforementioned categories, and always in the category called "best film not playing at a theater near you." Of this years nominees, it was particularly refreshing to best breakthrough director nominations bestowed upon Vera Farmiga (the Oscar-nominated actress who made her directorial debut this year with the powerful drama Higher Ground) and Dee Rees (who turned Pariah, a semi-autobiographical drama that she wrote while interning on movie sets, into a hit Sundance short and then into a hit Sundance feature).