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IFP/Gotham Awards Became an Oscar Bellwether Under Outgoing Joana Vicente’s Watch

Since becoming the Independent Film Project’s executive director in late 2009, Joana Vicente has made her mark. In addition to increasing IFP’s grant support, she also helped found the Made in NY Media Center and transitioned the org from a film-based foundation to an org that supports various media including film, television, web, podcasts and virtual reality.

But perhaps Vicente’s most recognized achievement is her transformation of the Gotham Awards. Once known as a small, low-key, New York-centric event, the annual kudfoest is now seen as a credible Academy Award bellwether for independent films.

Held in late November, the Gothams are the first stop on the long and winding road of awards season. But only recently, under Vicente’s leadership, has the kudofest become a critical early campaign event for underdog contenders.

The proof is in the winners. From 2014 through 2016 the Gothams honored “Birdman,” “Spotlight” and “Moonlight” respectively. Each film went on to garner an Oscar for best picture. Last year, Jordan Peel’s “Get Out” took home the best screenplay Gotham before garnering the little gold man in the same category.

Peele is one of many artists who got a boost from a Gotham win. In 2013 Matthew McConaughey garnered the best actor Gotham for “Dallas Buyers Club.” Prior to the ceremony, Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) and Bruce Dern (“Nebraska”) were favorites. But post-Gothams, McConaughey became the frontrunner and eventually won the Academy Award.

“When (McConaughey) won the Oscar, that was a very important moment for us,” Vicente says. “It changed the level of the talent attending the show and how distributors looked at us.”

This year’s 28th Gotham Awards marks Vicente’s final show as exec director. In August she was named the new executive director and co-head the Toronto International Film Festival.

Taking a walk down memory lane, Vicente remembers McConaughey’s win as one of her most memorable Gotham Awards moments. Others include two best actress acceptance speeches from Brie Larson and Isabelle Huppert in 2013 and 2016 for “Short Term 12” and “Elle” respectively.

Those wins were due in part to the expansion of the show in 2013 to include acting categories. In 2015 the Gothams began to recognize screenwriting and small-screen fare.

“Over the years we have done some tweaking,” Vicente explains. “We needed to really understand what kind of award shows we wanted to be.”

To figure that out Vicente, who served on the IFP board from 2005 to 2009, weathered plenty of kudofest growing pains, including the 2006 Gotham Awards backlash for recognizing a large number of studio films, including “The Departed.” (In 2007 the org modified its rule to only recognize indie films made with “an economy of means.”)

“Back then the show was finding its way,” Vicente says. “So of course there were a few hiccups.”

By tweaking the show in recent years, Vicente saw an increase in star attendance and with the increase of celebrities came damage control. The most infamous case came in 2012 when comedian and Gotham host Mike Birbiglia roasted career achievement award honoree, David O. Russell. Birbiglia recited parts of the helmer’s notorious tirade against Lily Tomlin during the filming of “I Heart Huckabees.” The result? Russell retreated to a backstage location and threatened to leave.

“When damage is done you need to go into recovery mode and fix it,” says Vicente, who had no idea Birbiglia was going to mention Russell in his opening monologue. “In that case, I needed to get David back in the room and eventually I did. It ended up being okay.” (Birbiglia opened his 2016 solo show, “Thank God for Jokes” by recounting the incident.)

Another scandal that was faced by Vicente was last year’s actor tribute to Dustin Hoffman. After naming Hoffman as an honoree, the actor was accused of sexual harassment. Vicente addressed the elephant in the room by speaking to the #MeToo movement. Hoffman, who later gave a straightforward speech, was never mentioned.

“The board and I had a lot of conversations about that,” Vicente says. “We felt that it was important for me to address the topic of sexual harassment at the beginning of the show to let people know that we took what was going on (in the entertainment industry) very, very seriously.”

While she is proud that the Gothams are now taken more seriously than ever before, Vicente hopes that the show still carries and will always carry with it what it had when it began in 1991 – authenticity and irreverence.

“It’s always been important to me and the organization that as we moved in the direction of making things more serious at the Gothams that we also kept the fun elements and the sense of really celebrating the independent community.”

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