Gotham Awards: 'Moonlight' Gets a Shot of Momentum — or Does It? (Analysis)

Moonlight Cast at Gotham Independent Film Awards - Getty - H 2016
Jemal Countess/Getty Images for IFP

The Gotham Awards are to the Oscars what the Iowa caucuses are to a presidential election and the NFL's preseason games are to its regular season: they're the first "results" to come in, so they get a lot of attention, but the reality is they don't really tell us much of anything about what's to come.

This is not to rain on the parade of Moonlight, the big winner at Monday night's 26th annual Gothams — it took best feature, best screenplay, a special ensemble prize and the audience award, and at the end of the day, it may well pose the greatest threat to presumptive best picture Oscar favorite La La Land. Nor is it to diminish the moment in the spotlight enjoyed by the others invited up to the podium — best actor Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea), best actress Isabelle Huppert (Elle) and Ezra Edelman, director of best documentary O.J.: Made in America.

But as much as we may want to ascribe greater "meaning" to the Gothams, the reality is that the winner in each of its categories is chosen by four or five more or less random people from the film industry — some more associated with the indies (e.g. Emily Mortimer) than others (e.g. Jonah Hill) — whereas Oscar nominations are chosen by hundreds, and Oscar winners are determined by thousands. Needless to say, the handful of Gotham voters is miles away from being a scientific sample for the large pool of ultimate Academy voters.

If one wants to get a good read on how the indie film community feels about this year's crop of films, better just to try to read the applause in the room at Cipriani Wall Street, which was audibly in Moonlight's corner — or, better yet, to pay attention to the Spirit Award nominations (which were announced last week, with Moonlight and American Honey leading the field with six noms each) and the eventual Spirit winners (which are revealed the day before the Oscars).

What the Gothams can — and may well — do is point Oscar voters' attention in certain directions. The ceremony was live-streamed, not televised, and few ever watch what actually goes down. Instead, they see, if anything, news reports about the results (which, without context, fuel the perception that more people were behind the prizes than actually were) and/or see photos (and there's something about seeing someone at a podium that subliminally makes people assume that person deserves to be there).

In other words, some illusions can become reality. Birdman and Spotlight were the last two films to win the best feature Gotham Award, and both went on to win the best picture Oscar. There was no direct correlation for them between the Gothams and the Oscars, either, but it certainly didn't hurt to be crowned as awards-worthy early on in the season.

This year, similarly, some will read about or see a photo of Huppert emotionally accepting her prize and think, "Hmm, that sorta makes sense. She's been around a long time, she's never won before and she seems to be grateful for it." And before you know it...

Also, the fact that O.J.: Made in America won best doc over the likes of Cameraperson, I Am Not Your Negro and Weiner sends, or appears to send, a powerful message: even the indie community is enamored with this most unusual film, to the extent that it chose it over far more "indie" efforts (read: low-budget/hardscrabble). And if these guys can get behind it...

There is one final type of Gotham Award "bounce," and it can come from one of the four annual career tributes the group hands out. No, I wouldn't rush to shift Snowden director Oliver Stone or Born to Be Blue lead actor Ethan Hawke from "long shots" to "front-runners" simply because they each were chosen to receive one and were the subjects of excellent montages. They also received glowing introductions and then gave nice acceptance speeches. But I might pay a little closer attention to Arrival lead actress Amy Adams, who is thought to be on the bubble for a nom, and for whom the scales could be tipped by the littlest thing. There were more than a few Oscar voters in the room on Monday night, and anyone who receives gushing and extended praise from the likes of Cate Blanchett, who introduced Adams, starts to look a little more impressive than they did beforehand.