Industry's swanky night out grows into the kudo fray

TIP SHEET
WHAT: 15th annual Gotham Awards, organized by non-profit indie film support org Independent Feature Project (IFP)
WHEN: Tonight; cocktail reception starts at 6 p.m., dinner at 7:30 p.m, followed by awards program
WHERE: Pier Sixty, Chelsea Piers, New York, N.Y.
WHO: About 800 industryites, with the emphasis on Gotham locals and indies. Those slated to attend include tributees Matt Dillon and Jim Jarmusch; host Kyra Sedgewick; nominees Ang Lee, Heath Ledger, Jeff Daniels, Owen Kline and Miranda July; presenters Maria Bello, Don Cheadle, Jonathan Demme, Marcia Gay Harden and Lili Taylor.

Matt Dillon isn’t the star of a movie playing in theaters right now. But if the one-sheets in bus shelters throughout Manhattan are anything to go by, you’d think otherwise. Instead, his brooding mug is the face of this year’s Gotham Awards, held tonight. It’s the first time that the 15-year-old event has received such public exposure and marks the growing importance of New York’s very own awards show to the city from which it takes its name.

Begun in 1991 as an intimate gathering at the Laura Belle supper club in midtown, the Gothams have since carved out a permanent place for themselves at the vast hangars of Chelsea Piers on the Hudson River. Hundreds gather to pay tribute to “the year’s most innovative films and filmmakers,” according to that Dillon poster, in what has become an essential destination for industry insiders from the East (and even West) Coast.

“The one unique thing about the Gothams is that it brings not just the independent community, but the entire New York film community together,” says Jonathan Sehring, prexy, IFC Entertainment. “The Gothams and the opening night of the New York Film Festival are really the two highlights on the New York industry’s calendar.”

Hosted by Kyra Sedgwick, the 15th annual kudos show will be graced with the presence of co-chairs Sheila Nevins (HBO’s documentary guru) and Bob Yari (“Crash” producer and co-financier). Jim Jarmusch will be honored with a special tribute, as will “Crash” star Dillon. The thesp follows in the footsteps of last year’s tributee Don Cheadle, who, incidentally, also starred in “Crash” and in last year’s “Hotel Rwanda,” for which he went on to be nominated for an Oscar.

While the Gothams haven’t quite attained the status of Academy forecaster, they are one of the first awards of the season, which many in the industry say “can’t hurt” their Oscar chances. And yet, few people understand exactly what it takes get a Gotham Award nomination. As one Academy-watch blogger notes, “They’re kind of like Independent Spirit Awards … Only well … I don’t really know their criteria.”

“It’s all subjective,” says Michelle Byrd, exec director of IFP, which puts on the Gothams as its principal fundraiser every year. “Our only real criterion is that the films have a strong authorial voice, and that can come from a range of genres and budget levels.”

Indeed, this year’s best feature contenders range from a $30-million-plus production from New Line (David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence”) and a pic shot for under $1 million in and around Penn Station’s Port Authority Bus Terminal (“Keane”). Others, falling somewhere in-between, include Venice fest winner “Brokeback Mountain,” Bennett Miller’s narrative debut “Capote” and Miranda July’s indie darling “Me and You and Everyone We Know.”

“When else would there ever be a dialogue about Miranda July and David Cronenberg in the same breath?” says Byrd. “The range and diversity of the nominees is really reflective of our process, which is to get people to think about the films and the filmmakers.”

Ira Deutchman, IFP’s board chairman, says that while cynics can complain that a film should be disqualified for a Gotham award if a major studio backs it, “It really depends on the filmmakers involved, and how they maneuver within the system to make the films they want to make.”

And by leaving the nominations process and winner selection up to small juries, Byrd says the practice “keeps us honest. It’s not like any one from inside the organization is picking what’s most expedient for us.”

This year’s nominating juries for the feature and breakthrough directors awards, for example, consisted of film critics Karen Durbin, Lisa Schwartzbaum and Peter Travers, and fest programmer Rajendra Roy.

The feature winner will be picked by composer Carter Burwell, producer Edward R. Pressman, and directors Mira Nair and Fisher Stevens, while the breakthrough director will be selected by producer Lydia Dean Pilcher, actor Matthew Modine, director George C. Wolfe, and cinematographer Enrique Chediak.

“If it was the same group of people voting every year,” says Byrd, “you’d be able to anticipate things in a way that might feel very predictable.”

Unpredictability is key, according to Byrd, who credits it in helping the Gothams garner more heat — particularly with last year’s event, when they gave out major competitive prizes for the first time and moved its dates from September into the heat of year-end kudo season.

It was also the first time the Gothams received a live national broadcast, on the Independent Film Channel.

While this year’s show will air locally on NYC TV (one of many new partnerships between city agencies and the IFP, along with those bus shelter ads), IFC has decided to limit its coverage to behind-the-scenes vignettes. IFC sources say that while the Gotham Awards show is one of the most unique in the biz, it’s also the most challenging to broadcast live. The cabler has experimented over the years with taped compilations, but has yet to find the right formula.

After last year’s beefed-up Gothams, the organization decided to expand the awards field beyond New York. Last year, the breakthrough categories for director and actor were restricted to Gotham-area talent, but “no one got it,” admits Byrd. So they went national for all prizes this year. (However, the Gothams will continue to present a special Celebrate New York award, this year going to the filmmakers of locally-shot documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom.”)

“We love the fact that New York industry is doing very well these days,” says Deutchman, “but IFP has its sights on a larger agenda. Independent filmmakers live all over the place.” Cronenberg, he admits, “isn’t even American.”

Two new accolades have been added to the lineup. The organization created an ensemble cast award to highlight the collaborative aspect of filmmaking, a notion that’s not often recognized in other award shows, and also perhaps to raise the star-quotient of the ceremony. “Potentially, it could be,” Byrd admits. “But just because you’re nominated doesn’t mean you’re coming.”

Catering to the smaller, extremely independent films that often fall through the cracks during the glitz of award season, the Gothams also will name a winner in the category Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You, organized and juried by the editors of IFP’s Filmmaker Magazine.

And while filmmakers and thesps may be foremost on the minds of Gothams attendees, IFC’s Sehring notes the event is also about “awarding the work of New York companies, such as New Line for ‘A History of Violence’ and Focus for ‘Brokeback Mountain.’ I guess it’s about honoring the work of all the people in the room.”

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