In the days since the horrifying events of Sept. 11, many entertainment industry professionals have publicly and privately questioned the value of their jobs.
It does not seem like the most appropriate time to honor contributors to the New York independent film community while the families of thousands grieve throughout the world. When looked at in a larger context, the mythology we bestow upon gutsy low-budget filmmakers who leverage their financial and emotional well-being to bring their personal vision to the screen seems like it belongs on another, safer planet.
The winners and nominees of this year’s Gotham Awards no doubt share this sentiment. But despite the heartbreaking distractions, the show will go on.
It is, after all, for a good cause. The event, which hands out six awards to emerging and established members of the New York indie world, is the biggest fundraiser for the Independent Feature Project, a Gotham organization dedicated to promoting East Coast alternatives to the studio system. As is the case every year, the awards are given out in the middle of the IFP’s annual weeklong market, which will run Sunday through Oct. 5 at the Angelika Film Center and surrounding locations.
This year, the organization will celebrate the event’s 11th anniversary at Chelsea’s Pier 60, where prankster emcee Andy Dick should help do away with any comparisons to the tonier West Coast galas.
“The event really serves two purposes for us,” says IFP executive director Michelle Byrd. “First, it’s an opportunity to bring the New York film community together, from the scrappy filmmakers to supporters to those who are no longer closely involved with independent film but remain sympathetic.
“Second, it’s a fundraiser that plays an extremely important role in financing the services and programs that the IFP organizes. The Gothams represent a significant revenue stream for us.”
A total of six awards will be presented at the ceremony. They include honors for lifetime achievement Robert De Niro; independent vision, Sound One’s Bill Nisselson; documentary achievement, Edet Belzberg’s “Children Underground”; actor, Uma Thurman; breakthrough actor, Yolonda Ross; and the Open Palm for first-time helmers, the only prize not announced in advance. While maintaining a second residence on the West Coast is not enough to warrant disqualification, all recipients and nominees must pass muster as veritable New Yorkers.
While the indie spirit still runs high at the Gothams, the show’s organizers have consistently succeeded in landing high-profile members of the local film community. The brothers Weinstein, co-honorees with 1997’s lifetime achievement award, are regular attendees to the perennially sold-out event, as are local luminaries like Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee.
The range in distribution status of the films in contention for the Open Palm are the best evidence for why the Gothams differ in tone and scope from other indie-friendly galas like IFP/West’s Independent Spirit Awards. Alongside John Cameron Mitchell’s arthouse hit “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is Randy Redroad’s “The Doe Boy,” which has not found a domestic distributor. Pic tells the story of a shy American Indian boy who breaks tribal custom when he mistakenly kills a doe while on a hunting excursion with his father.
Other nominees include Henry Bean’s “The Believer,” David Wain’s “Wet Hot American Summer,” Michael Cuesta’s “L.I.E.” and Dan Minahan’s “Series 7: The Contenders.”
“Even in its most extreme incarnation, New York is not nearly as corporate as Los Angeles,” says Bean, who cut his cut his teeth as a screenwriter on mainstream Hollywood fare like “Deep Cover” and “Internal Affairs.” “In L.A., you get money and no freedom. Here, you get freedom and no money. That’s the trade you’re making.”
The backgrounds of the other Open Palm nominees serve as further proof that there are no rules for how to pay dues before making your first movie. Wain got his start on MTV’s sketch comedy show “The State”; Mitchell adapted “Hedwig” from his long-running Off Broadway production; Cuesta directed commercials; Minahan worked as a screenwriter and a segment producer on news magazine shows; Redroad made several shorts and won a Rockefeller fellowship before embarking on his feature-length debut.
“From Martin Scorsese to Jim Jarmusch to Karyn Kusama, New York has offered an alternative approach to filmmaking,” says Redroad. “The Gotham awards reflect that spirit.”
“I should savor every moment, because it may not get any better than this,” says Cuesta, who has already received a number of rave reviews for “L.I.E.,” currently in theaters. “It’s the postpartum that terrifies me.”