Gotham Awards grows to include studio fare

IFP's kudofest widens eligibility scope to include big films from the majors

What: 16th Gotham Awards
When: 6 p.m. today
Where: Pier 60, Chelsea Piers, New York
Honorees: Kate Winslet, Ed Norton, Tim Robbins, Ellen Kuras, Mark Cuban, Todd Wagner, Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Guillermo del Toro

Growing up is hard to do, especially when you’re an awards ceremony.

In 2004, the Independent Feature Project’s annual Gotham Awards moved from September to early December, into the heat of Oscar season, launched two high-profile awards for best film and documentary and were broadcast on the Independent Film Channel.

Now, as the Gothams continue to try to set themselves apart from other kudofests, the New York event’s 16th edition reveals the strengths, shifts and struggles of moving on up.

Many observers were surprised by the news that this year’s feature nominees include three studio pictures — Warner Bros.’ “The Departed,” Sony’s “Marie Antoinette” and New Line’s “Little Children” — along with two low-budget indies, “Half Nelson” and “Old Joy,” both of which premiered at Sundance without distribution.

“Because it’s been mainly for smaller indie movies, I was very shocked,” says “The Departed” producer Graham King. “But I was very happy. I think when you get nominated for any award, it’s an honor.”

King admits the Gothams were never on his radar before. But that’s the point. Organizers want to broaden the IFP tent. “It’s a constant evolution,” says IFP exec director Michelle Byrd. “It’s not about studio or independent. We like movies, and it’s about how can we create an event that celebrates that without boundaries.”

“We’re trying not to marginalize independent films,” adds IFP board chairman Ira Deutchman, founder of Fine Line Features. “What’s pleased me is that ‘Old Joy’ and ‘The Departed’ could be in the same category. That would never happen at any other awards show.”

“It’s a nice, eclectic group,” says producer Ron Yerxa, who has both “Little Children” and “Little Miss Sunshine” up for Gothams. “We’re at a time in American culture where the culture doesn’t cohere, so you get a grab bag of films.”

The Gotham Awards nominees are determined by a handful of film critics; final awards are chosen by a group of filmmakers. In contrast to the Independent Spirit Awards, Film Independent’s annual awards show in Los Angeles, nominees don’t have budget caps and don’t go out to IFP’s membership for voting.

For Byrd, maintaining those differences are crucial. “They’re going to keep doing it their way, and we’re happy that they’re doing that, and we’re trying to do something that is different,” she says.

But some industry insiders have taken exception with the Gothams’ choice to expand their reach. “Having a movie like ‘Old Joy’ compete with ‘The Departed’ doesn’t do them any favors,” argues one exec. “The Gothams are giving attention to movies that don’t need them.”

And yet one film is basking in its newfound limelight. “Half Nelson,” with three Gotham nods, is the most-nominated pic and is aiming to capitalize on its recognition. “This was the first nomination for an important award,” says Mark Urman, head of U.S. theatrical for ThinkFilm, which is distributing the pic.

“I don’t know how ThinkFilm is going to compete,” admits “Half Nelson” producer Jamie Patricof. “It’s like David and Goliath, but I believe that we have just as good a shot at winning.”

But one industry insider believes it’s not a level playing field, giving unfair advantage to bigger films. In the category for ensemble cast, for example, low-budget indie “Shortbus” is competing against four studio specialty arm releases. “I guess it is still all about business and media coverage,” he laments.

But Byrd argues that the higher-profile films don’t bring any more money into IFP’s bank accounts. “I need to address this idea that somehow if you have studio films in the mix, it’ll translate into dollars for the organization,” she says. “Quite honestly, we’ve consistently raised under a million dollars (with the event) for the past three to four years.”

The Gothams lost a lucrative sponsorship and broadcast partner in the Independent Film Channel, but IFP organizers say a glitzy live telecast wasn’t suited to the Gothams anyway. “The minute you air an event like this, it puts an enormous amount of pressure to add star power,” says Deutchman, “which frankly, doesn’t fit into the agenda of the organization, and you can’t make the show as irreverent.”

Looking to the future of distribution, the Gothams have formed a new partnership with Netcaster iFilm, which will showcase segments of the show, red-carpet interviews and party coverage online, and syndicate the awards to its media partners such as Yahoo Video and MSN Video.

The Gothams also are aggressively creating public events for regular New Yorkers to run parallel with their industry-only $10,000-$30,000 per-table celebration. Pics nominated in the Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You category will receive screenings at the Museum of Modern Art; and the New York Times is hosting a “Times Talk” event with World Cinema honorees Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

“We’re figuring out a way to make the event more accessible, and the people that we’re honoring better promoted,” says Byrd, who adds that such public events can also help raise sponsorship packages.

Going into the third edition of the new Gothams, Byrd believes the kudofest is still going through a transition period, and that next year’s event will reflect increased financial growth as well as industry acceptance.

“The goal may be to bring in more money,” says Byrd, “but it’s been just as important to get it right.”

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