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Awards: Even With Matt Damon and Mike Birbiglia, Will the Gothams Ever Make For Good TV?

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire November 27, 2012 at 10:23AM

The 22nd annual Gotham Independent Film Awards took place Monday night at Cipriani, in a Financial District still in recovery from Hurricane Sandy. Presented by IFP, the event has always marked a kickoff to awards season. As indies and the Oscars have overlapped more and more, the Gothams provide an early look at some of the films and acceptance speeches we'll be seeing again at the Spirits and Academy Awards in the new year, starting with Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom," which nabbed the win for Best Feature.
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Matt Damon backstage at the Gothams.
Peter Knegt Matt Damon backstage at the Gothams.

The 22nd annual Gotham Independent Film Awards took place Monday night at Cipriani, in a Financial District still in recovery from Hurricane Sandy. Presented by IFP, the event has always marked a kickoff to awards season. As indies and the Oscars have overlapped more and more, the Gothams provide an early look at some of the films and acceptance speeches we'll be seeing again at the Spirits and Academy Awards in the new year, starting with Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom," which nabbed the win for Best Feature.

There were stars in attendance -- Marion Cotillard and Matt Damon were among those receiving tributes, while Jack Black, John Krasinski, Amy Adams, Willem Dafoe and others presented awards. And anyone not able to be there in person could watch the show online -- except when they couldn't, as the problem-plagued live feed hosted by YouTube lagged or went down for 20 minutes because of what the Gothams' Twitter feed described as "spotty" local Internet access.

The Gothams currently occupy a slightly awkward place between an event for and by the indie-film community and one intended to entertain outside viewers. As comedian and "Sleepwalk With Me" filmmaker and star Mike Birbiglia joked in an opening monologue that did not seem to go over well, "we're here because the rich guy who financed your film likes to meet celebrities." That's the unspoken subtext of many gala events for nonprofits, which are meant to celebrate the less-glamorous actual work that goes on throughout the year while also drawing the attention of donors and outsiders by way of famous faces. As Jimmy Kimmel pointed out in his remote intro, while Damon has a career that's spanned both indies and studio films (Kimmel took the first of the evening's two jabs at "The Legend of Bagger Vance"), it's his work in blockbusters like the "Ocean's Eleven" and "Bourne" franchises that cemented his place as a household name.

"How to Survive a Plague" team backstage at the Gothams.
Peter Knegt "How to Survive a Plague" team backstage at the Gothams.

Like the Spirit Awards, which air annually on IFC (full disclosure, I was once an employee) in what started as a live broadcast but has become a live-to-tape affair, the Gothams try to balance being an event designed to serve an indie-film industry that isn't given broader recognition and one that a wider audience will want to watch because it's filled with celebrities and funny bits. Do we watch the Gothams because we want to see if our friends and the small films we care about win, or because we like to discuss what Famke Janssen is wearing and hope to see Billy Crudup say something goofy after having one too many at the open bar?

There's no reason one event can't offer both, but evidence of how seldom the two line up could be seen in the presentation of the first category, the Audience Award, powered by online voters. Actor and 30 Seconds to Mars frontman Jared Leto, who directed the music industry documentary "Artifact" (which premiered at Toronto in September), was clearly aware, in accepting the prize, that his considerable fan following had powered him past festival favorites such as "Beasts of the Southern Wild." He ended his speech by pleading, "Don't hate me because I won." Fully half the comments on the live stream are from those early minutes of the event, as members of Leto's fanbase, which calls itself the Echelon, wrote things such as "WE WOOOOON HATEEEEERS" and "ok :D now I can go to sleep :D."

The back-and-forth between mainstream acceptance and artistic credibility is an ever-present force in the indie-film community, but it's a more central one to an awards show, during which you displease community and industry insiders by pandering too much to an outside audience but lose those same outsiders by focusing closely on films or people they don't recognize or haven't had the chance to see. In 2004, the Gothams were broadcast live for the first time on IFC, and they made a deal wtih NYC-TV for a subsequent live airing in 2007, but they couldn't make a permanent leap to a steady national broadcast platform.

Dan Talbot, of New Yorker Films and the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, was presented with an Industry Lifetime Achievement Award and gave a lengthy speech (one that can be read here) that included tales from his many years in distribution. It was an outlandish, amusing and wise performance, but it was antithetical to television, stopping the ceremony dead for unhurried musings on topics that were surely bewildering to most civilians that tuned in as the TelePrompter flashed, "Please wrap it up."

This year's host, Birbiglia, appeared cowed after that rough opening, admitting, "This is the hardest crowd I have ever played in front of in my life." He is emblematic of an undercurrent running throughout the Gothams -- an uneasy mix of professionalism and an aw-shucks acknowledgement that professionalism feels funny and formal and we're all just people here. But professionalism is what you need if you want people who are not there in the room with you to invest in watching. Both Birbiglia and Krasinski turned to the Internet to crowdsource their jokes, a shtick that worked better for the latter, who pulled from IMDb comments, than the former, who solicited gags (that weren't bad!) from Twitter. But the underlying thought was the same: a breaking-down of the barriers between those on stage and those in the larger Internet audience, even the ones that had no idea their words were being read aloud in front of a crowd.

Marion Cotillard backstage at the Gothams.
Peter Knegt Marion Cotillard backstage at the Gothams.

It's an act that's become more than trendy these days -- with cable news channels regularly turning to social media to provide commentary -- but at the Gothams it also provided a reminder that indie film is still a relatively intimate world. Krasinski's jokes rested on how removed the speculative IMDb comments were from his pal Damon as a person, while Birbiglia's depended on how fundamentally insidery jokes about "The Master" and being a struggling artist can be.

The Gothams may never be great TV, and maybe that's not so important (though it would be nice if they had a smoother live stream from which the audio didn't sporadically drop out). In a world in which the Web can give everyone access to everything, trying to cater to everyone, including crowds who were never going to stick around to see who won the Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You Award anyway, is unnecessary.

Broader platforms are helpful for publicity and for attracting sponsorship, but the fact that the Gothams remain a little inside-baseball is a welcome thing. As Birbiglia said, "We are here tonight because if we don't give ourselves these awards, who will?" For films such as "The Master" and people like David O. Russell probably plenty of people. It's the chance to see others coming up to the podium that sets the Gothams apart.

This article is related to: Television, TV Features, Gotham Awards, Mike Birbiglia, IFP, Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Jared Leto