Gathering returns the emphasis to smaller films

In a year of industry retrenchment, shakeups and shutdowns, it’s fitting that this year’s leading Gotham contender “Ballast” — with four nominations — is itself an emblem of small-scale DIY perseverance. Self-financed and self-distributed by first-time director Lance Hammer, “Ballast” is the ultimate arthouse indie — a gracefully told, hard-hitting Mississippi drama with no-name actors and a bold repudiation of commercial concerns.

Many of this year’s feature nominees share “Ballast’s” ultra-indie sensibility, whether Charlie Kaufman’s latest head trip, “Synecdoche, New York”; Tom McCarthy’s post-9/11 immigration drama, “The Visitor”; Darren Aronofsky’s small-scale, handheld portrait, “The Wrestler”; or Courtney Hunt’s gritty, maternal thriller, “Frozen River.”

No wonder the IFP renamed this year’s event the “Gotham Independent Film Awards” from the showier, more ambiguous Gotham Awards.

“We’ve tried to put the word ‘independent film’ in everything that we do,” says longtime IFP executive director Michelle Byrd. “Gotham Film Awards would be a bit of a misrepresentation, because these are independent films. So this helps clarify the scope.”

It wasn’t always that way. Just two years ago, studio films “The Departed,” “Marie Antoinette” and “Little Children” were all nommed for best feature, provoking ire among the indie community. Since then, IFP modified its rules to restrict eligible films to those with “independent distribution,” defined as those released by a specialty division, an independent distributor or self-distributed.

As a result, this year’s contenders are more modest than years past. Byrd acknowledges, “People haven’t heard of a lot of the films.”

None of the best feature nominees received studio division backing. And dollar for dollar, they are the lowest grossing since the prize was first given in 2004. Overture’s leading $9.2 million take for “The Visitor” qualifies as an undisputed success, but compared with past more-boffo contenders (“Into the Wild,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Sideways”), this year’s crop coincides with an industrywide squeeze.

Overture CEO Chris McGurk argues that a rethinking of the “indie hit” is necessary nowadays. “The scorecard that everyone on the friggin’ planet has for movies is box office, and it’s wrong, because there have been lots of movies that have done less than $10 million and have been very successful for the studios that released them,” he says. Unlike the outsized P&A spends that boosted many a Gotham contender’s grosses in previous years, McGurk contends, “It’s healthy to have this idea that the indie business can be successful on a different standard.”

This year, the list of submitted films also included few specialty juggernauts — the most mainstream being “Burn After Reading” — further suggesting it’s not just the IFP that is telescoping its focus, but the entire sector. “We’re seeing a shift,” Byrd says. “There are some heavy award campaign films in the group,” she explains, referring to “Synecdoche” and “The Wrestler,” “but with the loss of Picturehouse and Warner Independent, there’s a shortage of those uber-indies. They’re not floating around as much this year.”

Larger specialty-division fare, such as Focus Features’ “Milk” and Paramount Vantage’s “Revolutionary Road,” could have been eligible but were not ready or available to be seen by the Gothams’ entire selection committee members, Byrd says. “In previous years, these were festival films, but this year, they’re on a different cycle.”

Because this year’s contenders are smaller and perhaps more commercially risky, it arguably makes the Gothams that much more important in terms of shining a spotlight on them.

According to “Synecdoche, New York” producer Anthony Bregman, the Gothams will help give the film publicity, “and for a film with a low P&A budget in a tough market, publicity is our life jacket.”

Bregman also says films get traction from the Gothams’ early position in awards season, “before the process has been muddied by multimillion-dollar ad campaigns meant to¬†convince us of a film’s awards-worthiness.”

Sony Pictures Classics’ Tom Bernard agrees, likening the event’s critic-selected prizes to a New York Film Festival slot. “Any time you can get your movie to the public in a way that the media covers, it’s great,” he says. “It increases awareness.”

“Ballast” producer-director Hammer, who is touring his film with the help of Steven Raphael’s Required Viewing and MJ Peckos’ Mitropoulos Films, says after the noms were announced he received a spike in correspondence from well-wishing agents and homevid companies. (They are still looking for a DVD release.)

But for Hammer, who has lost faith in the marketplace due to what he sees as a massive disconnect between critical acceptance and B.O. results, short-term gains aren’t really the goal anymore. “Personally, I’m grateful that my peers have acknowledged the film,” he says.

“Ultimately, I have to say, that’s the only thing that matters.”

TIP SHEET

What: Indie support org IFP’s 18th annual Gotham Independent Film Awards

When: Tuesday night. Cocktails start at 6:30 p.m., dinner and awards at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Cipriani, 55 Wall Street, New York

Web: ifp.org

Wattage: Penelope Cruz, Marisa Tomei, Patricia Clarkson, Ethan Hawke

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