Gotham kudos mix star power with low-budget indies

IFP Gotham Independent Film Awards

The Gotham Independent Film Awards represent a rare mix of razzle-dazzle and gritty pluck.

Held at Cipriani’s in Wall Street — expect plenty of OWS-based jokes from this year’s hosts Oliver Platt and Edie Falco — the kudos are one of the few places in the world where the likes of Sean Penn and Meryl Streep brush shoulders with projectionist-filmmaker Ronnie Bronstein and Ghanaian T-shirt salesman-turned-actor Prince Adu. And where $20 million-plus movies starring major stars can compete — and lose — against micro-budget gems starring no-name talent.

Remember, it isn’t just the Gothams, it’s the Gotham Independent Film Awards. After studio films “The Departed,” “Marie Antoinette” and “Little Children” were nommed for best feature in 2006 provoking ire among the indie community, Gotham organizers re-branded the event in 2008, emphasizing its indie roots and restricting eligible films to those with independent distribution, defined as those released by a specialty division, an independent distributor or self-distributed.

“There was a lot of backlash,” admits Joana Vicente, the Independent Feature Project’s exec director, who was on the board at the time.

While the move may not have changed the fundamental nature of the Gothams, the IFP’s main fundraising event where companies fork over $13,000-$30,000 per table, it’s further sharpened the org’s goal of supporting those filmmakers who need a hand.

This year while Alexander Payne’s “The Descendents” and Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life,” both backed by Fox Searchlight, are up for the feature prize, they are joined by lower-budget, independently financed “Take Shelter,” “Meek’s Cutoff” and “Beginners.”

“It’s great that they’re all on the same playing field,” says Vicente.

Such all-inclusiveness can be particularly useful for a smaller film. As “Take Shelter” producer Tyler Davidson says, “My neighbor may not flip out when I talk Gotham nominations, but he gets excited when I say we’re alongside Pitt and Clooney films. That’s cultivating new audiences. And that’s good for everyone — for us, for the Gothams, and for the industry.”

Indie distribution execs, like Dylan Leiner of Sony Pictures Classics, which is releasing “Take Shelter,” and David Fenkel, president of Oscilloscope Laboratories, which distributed nominees “Meek’s Cutoff” and “Bellflower,” also note the Gothams are ideally timed to jog the memories of consumers as the films venture out into theaters, or on VOD and other platforms.

And as the first awards of the season, Leslie Urdang, producer of “Beginners,” says the Gothams, “are an important reminder of movies that opened earlier in the year.”

Without the big advertising pushes of a specialized company, micro-indies and up-and-coming talent can also use the Gothams to boost their careers.

“That’s what I think we do best,” Vicente says. “Shine a light on emerging talents, who are not on people’s radar, or if they are, we’re helping to solidify that.”

For low-budget director Sophia Takal, for instance, nominated for the film not playing at a theater near you award for her feature debut, “Green,” it’s that parity with specialized studio fare that can really make the difference.

When she told her mother the Clooney movie was up for a Gotham too, Takal says her mom “finally felt the money I borrowed from her to make ‘Green’ was worth it.”

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