'Indies' forced to redefine as budgets shrink

The Gotham Awards, produced by indie support org IFP, represent two sides of a widening schism between the haves and have-nots of the independent film world. On one side, it’s a hipster gathering with plenty of off-the-record speeches; on the other, it’s an upscale ticket for dinner at Cipriani Wall Street.

“I love going,” says prolific New York-based producer Mary Jane Skalski. “But it’s not what I think of when I think about the IFP.”

She’s not alone. Even outgoing exec director Michelle Byrd acknowledges the cognitive rift.

“The people who are going to the Gothams and the people premiering films at Independent Film Week, these are not the same audiences,” Byrd says, referring to IFP’s September market and screenings confab for fledgling indies. The disparity, she said, is partly why the Gothams were moved from September to later in the year. “The idea was that the Gothams could be more relevant to the people you’re honoring by moving it into the awards season.”

Reflecting on her 12 years as IFP exec director, Byrd has witnessed lots of change. She’s seen the more established indies “have had a bit of the good life: There were bidding wars for indie films. That’s not the reality now. People are going to be making smaller movies. Those who were making $30 million-$40 million movies might start making $5 million movies. I think that’s a good thing. Filmmakers are being forced to reinvent and reinvigorate.”

They’ll need to, if they hope to be on the receiving end of a Gotham Award. This year’s feature competition includes Kathryn Bigelow and the Coen brothers; the docu contenders include such well-financed projects as “Food, Inc.” and “Tyson”; Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics, Focus Features and Summit Entertainment all have films in the mix — and these are not the people IFP helps all year round, by providing access, information, instruction and mentoring.

On the other hand, Skalski notes that IFP isn’t just for beginners. The org involves industry pros who teach and newbies who come to learn, she says, “but there’s a divide because those who are established don’t participate in the organization in the same way. The Gothams sort of tempers that because it’s so big; everyone who can afford to go or gets invited goes. Sure, some tables are more in the back, but we’re all watching the same show and mingling at the same cocktail hour.”

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