On Sept. 30, 1991, John Turturro and the late Jonathan Demme were the first of seven New Yorkers to garner a Gotham Award. Trophies were handed out at the Roseland Ballroom without much fanfare. The celebratory dinner, a fundraiser for the Independent Filmmaker Project, was a small, low-key, quirky event that didn’t draw mainstream media.
“It didn’t have that big huge red carpet thing that happens nowadays,” says former IFP exec director Catherine Tait, who oversaw the creation of the Gotham Awards. “It was really intimate because the interest in indie filmmaking was not very heightened at the time.”
Cut to the same awards show at the same venue four years later. “Reservoir Dogs,” “Kids” and “Hoop Dreams” were officially part of the zeitgeist and Madonna was posing for photographers along with fellow Gotham Award guests Ted Turner and Jane Fonda. The Gotham Awards were officially a hot ticket.
“We were riding a wave of sudden consumer awareness around what an independent film was,” says Tait.
While the inaugural show netted approximately $125,000 for the IFP, a nonprofit dedicated to small-scale movies, by the time Tait exited the org in 1997 the event drew in over half a million annually. Nowadays the ceremony garners well over $1 million for the org and officially kicks off the film awards season. This year’s event will be Nov. 27 at Cipriani Wall Street.
“We like that we are at the beginning, because we believe that way we have the most impact,” says Joana Vicente, the executive director of IFP. “By calling attention to those films that we nominate, we are helping them become part of the conversation.”
The kudofest has become a credible Academy Award bellwether for independent films. For the past three years the Gothams have honored the same best picture winner as the Oscars — “Moonlight,” “Spotlight” and “Birdman” — and tipped “The Hurt Locker” before that. The Gotham Awards also honored Matthew McConaughey (“Dallas Buyers Club”) and Julianne Moore (“Still Alice”) months before both actors received their little gold men. In addition, the kudofest named eventual Oscar documentary winners “Citizenfour” and “O.J.: Made in America” in 2014 and 2016, respectively.
Yance Ford’s “Strong Island” is one of five docus nominated this year. Back in 2012, Ford, busy trying to finish the film, was accepted into the IFP Spotlight on Docs — essentially speed dating among filmmakers and potential financing and distribution partners. It was pivotal moment for the project.
“It feels like coming full circle,” Ford says about the nomination. “The Gothams elevate everyone who is nominated. And given the history of IFP in supporting the whole independent film community, that’s not only appropriate, but also a genuine pleasure.”
While the IFP’s support for such filmmakers as Ford, Debra Granik, Miranda July and Benh Zeitlin has never been questioned, the Gothams have experienced their share of criticism among the indie crowd. In 2004, the ceremony moved from September to November and broadened its scope to indie films made outside the tri-state area. A best feature category was added. This year, those nominees are “Call Me By Your Name,” “The Florida Project,” “Get Out,” “Good Time” and “I, Tonya.”
And over time categories such as the Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You were eliminated in favor of more traditional awards including actor and actress, which dialed up the star power. This year’s acting categories include Willem Dafoe (“The Florida Project”), James Franco (“The Disaster Artist”) and Margot Robbie (“I, Tonya”).
However, true to the indie roots of the awards, there is the Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award, with Maggie Betts (“Novitiate”), Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”), Kogonada (“Columbus”), Jordan Peele (“Get Out”) and Joshua Z. Weinstein (“Menashe”) grabbing noms.
“The Gothams have become yet another qualifying lead-up to the awards season,” says sales agent John Sloss, founder of Cinetic Media. Along with Tait, Sloss helped to develop the inaugural Gotham Awards.
“The Gothams are now part of a mechanism that enhance interest in these movies and you have to support that.” Sloss says. “I may take issue with reducing all of these films to this kind of competition, it trivializes them, but I also think it unquestionably promotes them.”
According to Vicente, that’s the goal.
“Yes, in the past three years the films that won the best feature Gotham have gone on to win an Oscar, but for us the most important thing is not that fact,” she says. “It’s the fact that these amazing independent films and filmmakers were acknowledged in mainstream.”