There's nothing like award season to bring out debate. Even at the Independent Feature Project's Gotham Awards, a relative newcomer and comparatively small player in the end-of-year accolade glut, the announcement on Monday that the Gotham's best film contenders included three studio pictures, Martin Scorsese's "The Departed," Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" and Todd Field's "Little Children," raised more than a few eyebrows within New York's independent film community. As The Reeler's S.T. VanAirsdale observed on his website, "When three Best Feature nods have a combined $144 million budget, it might be time to change the rules."
While the Best Film award race also includes two low-budget films, "Half Nelson," directed by Ryan Fleck and "Old Joy," directed by Kelly Reichardt, a number of film industry insiders were perturbed by the star-power of the studio nominees.
IFP Executive Director Michelle Byrd declined to comment for this story about the reactions to this year's choices. In an email exchange, she referred this reporter to IFP's criteria, available on the IFP website. However, during indieWIRE's article published Monday, she defended the decision to make studio films eligible. "It is essentially saying that this is a film that has the imprint of a specific voice," she said. "From my point of view, all of the films on the list do have that, irrespective of their budget sizes."
The only requirements for a Gotham Award for Best Film is that it's American made and that it's, "an exceptionally realized fiction film that raises the possibilities of filmmaking and that will withstand the test of time."
Some film industry-ites question the validity of such open-ended criterion for an organization, the Independent Feature Project, whose very name implies an "independent" film, rather than one made by a studio.
Even individuals close to the IFP were surprised by the nominations this week, but those contacted declined to express their views on the record for this story. Reached by email from the Sao Paulo International Film Festival, IFP board chairman Ira Deutchman declined to comment until returning to New York next week.
Sony Pictures Classics' Tom Bernard, who was involved in the IFP when it was formed in the early 1980s, said the independent film organization has lost its direction. "I think the need for movie stars seems to override the initial charter of the IFP," he said. "Where has the indie world gone?"
"I am confused about what the Gothams are supposed to represent," agreed Gary Meyer, new co-director of the Telluride Film Festival and a co-founder of Landmark Theaters. "I am a big fan of both 'The Departed' and 'Marie Antoinette,' but was quite surprised to find them as nominees in a competition I thought was to celebrate independent films." Meyer acknowledged the lines between studio and independent have become blurred with the creation of the specialized studio divisions, "but these two are films made with big budgets by the studios' major divisions," he added.
IFC Films' Ryan Werner (who started his career at the IFP) said he believes the Independent Feature Project should be "showcasing films that need the attention, that are really independent," he said. "I'd rather see 'Little Miss Sunshine' or 'Quinceanera' or 'A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints' than 'The Departed' and 'Marie Antoinette.' I'm not saying those movies don't deserve awards; it's just that they're a little out of a place at the IFP. It's a lost opportunity," Werner added.
Werner pointed to a "crisis for independent films," when movies as good as "Old Joy" and "Mutual Appreciation" (which was not nominated) are struggling to survive in theaters, and urgently need support. Released by Kino International, "Old Joy" has made about $105,000. (Warner Bros.'s "The Departed," by comparison, has grossed over $78 million.) Kino's Gary Palmucci said the Gotham Award nomination is "great for the filmmakers," but only if the film actually wins against its major competitors would the Best Film prize impact the movie's precarious box office, he admitted.
"Getting a nomination is very good for the inside baseball, for Kino's profile," said Palmucci, "but that doesn't pay the bills."
In fact, Palmucci isn't sure whether Kino International and the "Old Joy" team will be able to afford to attend the Gotham Awards, where tables cost tens of thousand of dollars. "It's kind of daunting for us," he said. "For a company like us, without deep pockets, that money is better spent for P&A for 'Old Joy.'" (In previous years, cash-strapped distributors have relied on the kindness of other companies, who have offered up their unoccupied seats.)
Not everyone is disappointed with the evolution of the Gothams, which no longer makes an effort to salute New York area filmmakers or industry professionals, specifically. (This year's special honorees include Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban, along with actors Kate Winslet and Edward Norton.)
Mark Urman, head of U.S. theatrical distribution for ThinkFilm, is looking at the Gothams as a springboard for ThinkFilm's Academy campaign for "Half Nelson." Urman supports the film's more high-profile competition. "I just think it's marvelously eclectic," he said. "We think it's a compliment to be included. I don't know how people can make a judgment," he admitted. "It's not just apples and oranges; it's apples, oranges, pears and kiwis, but they're all Gothamy fruit."
But Urman may be in the minority. Even Urman himself chastised the awards two years ago when "Primer" was the only independently financed film in the Gotham competition. "There are probably a dozen filmmakers and distributors who are looking at the list and wondering when they're going to get to go to an awards ceremony," he told Variety at the time. "It won't be at the Oscars, it won't be at the Spirits, and it won't be at the Gothams. Is it going to end up that they're only relegated to the category of best film made cheaply?"
In the same Variety article, producer Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, an IFP board member, admitted that Urman's concern was "an anxiety we need to address directly," he said at the time, adding, "But if we don't expand our horizons, the organization will not be able to sustain itself economically."
Indeed, as the Independent Feature Project's most important fundraiser of the year, the Gothams continue to help raise a crucial amount of cash to support the organization. But in their quest for fiscal stability, it raises the question of whether the organization may have lost its focus.
Or maybe not. Journalist and critic Stephen Garrett, a member of the Gotham Awards nominating committee for best feature, along with critics John Anderson, Karen Durbin, and Lisa Schwarzbaum, said the lack of indie and specialty division titles in the best picture category was simply a function of what's been released this year. "The indies were not as strong as everything on the list," he explained. "If there were three studio films in the final tally, it meant that we did not think that there were another three indie films that qualified to be on the list. I would rather see 'The Departed' than 'Little Miss Sunshine,' he said. 'I think it's just the dearth of quality of indie films."
The winners of the Gotham Awards - along with the jury of filmmakers and professionals who have been selected to determine the winners in each category - will be announced on November 29.