Gala moves to New York's 'creative hotbed'

After 16 years in Manhattan, the Gotham Awards have a new home in New York’s outer borough, at Steiner Studios, the Brooklyn-based backlot.

If the fringe locale is more suited to the Independent Feature Project’s edgy spirit, this year’s fund-raiser for the org also garnered more extensive sponsorships, city government coordination and wider promotional activities. “This is the year we grew up,” says IFP’s executive director Michelle Byrd.

Now taking place on a 27,000-square-foot soundstage — recently home to the Coen brothers’ “Burn After Reading” and Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” — the show switched to the new digs because the former locale, Chelsea Piers on Manhattan’s West Side, was beginning to feel staid, says actor-producer and Gothams committee member Fisher Stevens.

“This felt more anti-Hollywood,” he says. “Brooklyn is a creative hotbed for New York; there are so many artists and filmmakers and musicians coming out of there, and those empty soundstages, they’re just so cinematic.”

“It’s a little bit of a hassle,” Stevens admits, regarding the trek from Manhattan. “But now it can become less about schmoozing and more about remembering why we are here: to honor people who work really hard.”

Plus, many of New York’s film community call Brooklyn home, anyway. (Stevens and Byrd are both Brooklyn residents, as are Gotham honorary chairs Steve Buscemi and John Turturro.)

After last year’s event drew flak for the nomination of Hollywood studio pics such as “The Departed” and “Marie Antoinette,” this year’s Gotham nominees reflect films made with an “economy of means.” While a few studio films were submitted this year (such as “Michael Clayton”), there was a conscious effort on the part of organizers and this year’s “best film” nominating committee — critics Cynthia Fuchs, Owen Gleiberman and Dennis Lim and Toronto Film Fest co-director Noah Cowan — to avoid the bigger films.

“I gave one set of instructions,” Byrd says. “We’re celebrating independent film. Before, we hadn’t felt comfortable just saying that.”

This year’s biggest selection, for example, may be Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild,” but the no-budget indie “Great World of Sound,” which made just $22,000 at the box office, leads the field of nominees.

The Gothams will additionally fete director Mira Nair, actor Javier Bardem, production designer Mark Friedberg, IFC exec Jonathan Sehring, film critic Roger Ebert and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It’s the first time a sitting mayor will attend the Gothams — a sign, says Byrd, of the IFP’s growing and more integrated relationship with the city.

Bloomberg, a film production booster, says he’s “proud that independent filmmakers have consistently chosen New York as the backdrop for their films,” and together with partners like the IFP, he adds, the city is “finding new and innovative ways to support the industry.”

In another first, Gotham Awards street banners bearing the event’s slogan “…¬†where independent film comes home” will adorn various neighborhoods that are hosting Gotham-related screening activities: Bardem and Nair retros, for example, will screen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and IFC Center, respectively, while the nominees in the “Best Films Not Playing at a Theater Near You” category are showing at the Museum of Modern Art.

“From a marketing standpoint, this was the year that we became more strategic and savvy,” says Byrd, touting the org’s multiyear pact with the New York Times, which will include an annual eight-page advertorial insert. “They’ve really stepped up their commitment, and now that’s something we can build off,” she says.

Also new this year are partnerships with the Documentary Channel, which will broadcast the ceremony Dec. 8, and a three-year pact with Netflix. The online homevid service will make available to its members a Gotham Awards special, directed by Brooklyn-based filmmaker Mario Diaz.

But Byrd says she never intended the Gothams to be a glitzy awards show akin to an East Coast version of the Spirit Awards, but rather a relaxed party. “Because of its format and because it’s first in the season, it doesn’t feel canned,” she says. “The stakes are low, so people can be more themselves.”

And while the industry at large might not put much stake in the value of a Gothams prize, Byrd notes that distributors still place their laurels on posters and hustle to get their talent out.

Mark Urman, head of U.S. theatrical for ThinkFilm, which released last year’s film winner “Half Nelson,” acknowledges the prize helped the overall awards campaign. “Once a film starts winning, it can keep on winning,” he says. “In general, campaigns are all about momentum. The Gothams were the first link in a chain that extended through the season.”

“I do think it can start the buzz around a film,” agrees Joana Vicente, producer and Gothams committee chair, who highlights last year’s tribute to the Mexican directors known as “The Three Amigos” (Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu). “We identified that trend before everyone else.”

But above all, Vicente says, the Gothams are a place for the indie industry to celebrate its own. “New York is the capital of independent film,” she says. “It’s about taking ownership. The Spirit Awards feel less like a celebration of independence, as it’s in Los Angeles and the night before the Oscars. This,” she adds, “feels more genuine.”

TIP SHEET

When: 6:30 p.m., Tuesday night

Where: Steiner Studios, Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York

Web: ifp.org

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