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They’ll take Manhattan

December date catapults indie fete into kudo season

Is New York’s film industry finally getting an awards presentation it can be proud of?

After 13 years of playing second fiddle to a host of kudocasts and annual accolades, the Independent Feature Project New York’s Gotham Awards is moving into the heat of awards season. In switching from September to Dec. 1, the indie org’s fall fund-raiser will take place in the middle of kudo campaigning — the same day the National Board of Review announces its winners and just two days before Golden Globes ballots are mailed out.

“Just as people’s careers need to adapt with the times, it’s important for the Gothams to grow and create new opportunities for itself,” says IFP/New York exec director Michelle Byrd. “We’re just trying to make the event more relevant, useful and compelling.”

While one exec calls the move solely opportunistic, many N.Y. industryites welcome the change. “The Gotham Awards were always an important social event,” says ThinkFilm’s Mark Urman. “But because it was floating in the middle of nowhere as an adjunct to the IFP Market, it was isolated. By simply changing it to December, it becomes part of the larger discussion.”

“New York, especially the New York independent community, deserves recognition for the pivotal role it plays,” agrees Focus Features co-prexy James Schamus. “We are the Oscar swing state.”

In addition to the date shift, this year’s Gothams will add two high-profile awards for film and documentary of the year. The added competition has helped the previously prerecorded event to secure a live airing on the Independent Film Channel. “There’s no reason to be live if there’s no element of surprise,” says Byrd.

In another surprising move for the indie film support org that battled the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s screener ban, the Gothams’ picture contenders are open to studio films. While this year’s feature list — “Before Sunset,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “I Heart Huckabees,” “Primer” and “Sideways” — doesn’t include heavy hitters such as “Ray” and “The Incredibles,” they were eligible for consideration.

“We really wanted to focus on filmmaker-driven projects,” says Byrd, “regardless of where they are on the money scale. It’s that passion that we wanted to acknowledge.”

The best-film award concept was actually proposed by distributors, interested in further promoting their awards season hopefuls, according to Byrd.

Focus co-president David Linde, for one, is on this year’s IFP/NY board. “It wasn’t my idea. I just had to figure out how to make it work without taking over our show.”

Rather than go out to a membership body for voting, like the Oscar’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, IFP/New York’s board created a system akin to the British Academy of Film & Television Arts’ technical prizes, which are decided upon by expert judges. “It’s much more like a festival jury,” explains Byrd. “We asked the selection team for something like a top 10 list.”

By relying on the subjective opinion of a few professionals (for example, producer David Brown, Elle magazine critic Karen Durbin and filmmaker Ed Burns choose the best film), Byrd says the Gothams can distinguish themselves from their West Coast sister event, IFP/Los Angeles’ Independent Spirit Awards, which is voted upon by the IFP’s membership and has trumped the Gothams with its starry turnout and headlines. “It’s really important for us not to duplicate the Spirit Awards,” insists Byrd.

This year, the Gothams may even steal some thunder from the Spirits, which announce their noms on the eve of the New York gala Nov. 30. Despite rumored tension between the two branches, IFP/L.A.’s exec director, Dawn Hudson says, “I don’t anticipate any confusion, but if there is, then Michelle and I will regroup so it won’t be confusing in the future.”

Byrd also feels the jury process can sideline the prickly issue of what is indie. “Defining an independent film is just as slippery as defining pornography,” she says. “Wherever you draw the line in the sand, people on either side aren’t going to be happy, so we opted to not use that as our criteria.”

But not all industryites say star-studded nominee “I Heart Huckabees” is welcome at the Gothams. “There are probably a dozen filmmakers and distributors who are looking at the list and wondering when they’re going to get to go to an awards ceremony,” says ThinkFilm’s Urman, distributor of “Primer,” the only film nominee that was financed and released independently of the studios. “It won’t be at the Oscars, it won’t be at the Spirits, and it won’t be at the Gothams. Is it going to end up that they’re only relegated to the category of best film made cheaply?”

“It’s an anxiety we need to address directly,” admits producer Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, an IFP/N.Y. board member closely involved with the Gothams’ new direction. “But if we don’t expand our horizons, the organization will not be able to sustain itself economically.”

But the Gothams aren’t abandoning their roots altogether. The metropolis will still be celebrated with a Celebrate New York honor (for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), a tribute to New Yorker Films’ and Lincoln Plaza Cinema’s Dan Talbot, and breakthrough actor and director prizes chosen from talent from the five boroughs.

“What we’re trying to say is that New York is this nexus between the studio world and the rest of the world,” explains Byrd. “The Gothams’ changes are about trying not to paint yourself into a corner. By making it exclusively about New York for 14 years, you do start to paint yourself in a corner. And New York is not a corner, it’s a gateway to the world.”

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