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How the Gotham Awards Became the Iowa Caucus of Oscar Season

Two years ago, Matthew McConaughey made a rather dubious cameo at the Gotham Independent Film Awards. When announced as the best actor winner, his co-star Jared Leto took the stage to accept on his behalf, before dialing up McConaughey on an iPhone and putting him on speaker. But there was a bad connection. “This is terrible,” Leto said, as he read some words from McConaughey, who could be heard laughing on the other end of the line.

It was enough. The Gotham Awards were the first stop in a series of wins, culminating with the Oscar, for McConaughey’s performance as a man living with AIDS in “Dallas Buyers Club.” Before the New York event, the blogosphere was divided on that year’s best actor category — maybe Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Wolf of Wall Street” or Bruce Dern in “Nebraska” would emerge with the top prize in February. But post-Gothams, McConaughey became the frontrunner and studio executives from Focus Features, which distributed the indie, credited the downtown shindig with creating a wave of momentum for its star.

There are endless stops, Q&As, and schmoozing opportunities on the long road to the Oscars. But the Gotham Awards, which are held in late November, have become the Iowa Caucus of awards season — a critical early campaign event for many underdog contenders. The ceremony, hosted by the Independent Filmmaker Project (a Manhattan nonprofit dedicated to small-scale movies), has correctly predicted the Academy Awards best picture winner for the last two years with statues for “Birdman” and “Spotlight,” before they went on to bigger honors.

This year’s show on Monday night, which will be broadcast on Facebook Live from Cipriani Wall Street, will be the first of many match-ups between two of this year’s Oscars favorites: “Manchester by the Sea” and “Moonlight,” which each scored multiple nominations. Acting nominees Casey Affleck (“Manchester”), Annette Bening (“20th Century Women”), and Natalie Portman (“Jackie”) are all being flown into New York to attend. So is Amy Adams, who is receiving a special tribute award. She’s doubled up on campaigning this winter for her two movies currently in theaters: “Arrival” and “Nocturnal Animals.”

Pundits says that the Gothams, which are decided by three-or-four person committees of actors, directors, and other indie-film veterans, don’t necessarily predict the Oscars. And the show has a flair for bucking the mainstream at times. One of the only losses last year for Brie Larson (“Room”) was at the Gothams, which handed out its best actress prize to Bel Powley for the little-seen “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” instead.

The Gotham have been around for 26 years, but have only recently become so critical to studios behind art-house films. In 2014, the show broadened its scope with acting categories, which dialed up the star power to a dinner attended by quirky New York directors and members of their crew. Last year, the show added a TV award for the best freshman series (a prize nabbed by “Mr. Robot”).

“I think it has become more relevant over the years,” says Joana Vicente, a movie producer and the executive director of IFP. “For a couple categories, it really has an impact. A lot of these films are just in theaters.” She added that the biggest strength of the Gothams is its ability to “help build awareness and audiences.”

Hollywood’s other awards show for small movies, the Independent Spirit Awards, are held in a tent in Santa Monica on the day before the Oscars, when there’s no time left to switch your ballots. But the Gothams take place during the holiday window as Academy voters are just starting to decide what screeners to watch. “This is the beginning of awards season,” Vicente says.

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