This week, the Gotham Awards won’t only further the awards race with the first big ceremony of the season. The IFP-run New York event also celebrates its 25th year, a major landmark for the non-profit that stretches back to a dramatically different period in the history of American independent film.
For current IFP executive director Joana Vicente, the Gothams continue to embody much of their original ethos even as the scope has widened from its initial focus on New York film personalities. “The mission of the Gotham Awards has always been to celebrate independent films and the creative community behind them, and to especially highlight young and emerging talent of each year,” she said, noting that the “breakthrough director” award has been there since the beginning. Now, the Gothams have added a “breakthrough series” award for television and digital media.
While the event is IFP’s main annual fundraiser, Vicente stressed its additional value. “It’s also important for us that the awards themselves be seen as credible and are a good representation of what is really a quite diverse and exciting landscape of work,” she said. “In an ever-shrinking window of ‘awards season,’ the fact that we are positioned right at the beginning also helps to broaden the overall conversation to include a diversity of work.”
Back in 1991, however, IFP faced a whole different set of challenges. Indiewire spoke with producer and Duopoly president Catherine Tait, IFP’s executive director when the Gothams were initially conceived, about those first few years and how the community has evolved since then.
What were some of the initial impulses behind the creation of the Gotham Awards?
I had just joined IFP as executive director, and we determined the organization was in — I don’t want to call it a fragile state, but let’s say precarious. It was financially under stress. We thought we needed a fundraising event. That was where it actually started, and the original committee of people who came together to figure out the mandate beyond raising money was under a lot of pressure to try to do something that would celebrate the uniqueness of independent filmmaking in New York, which is why we called them the Gotham Awards, by the way. It was the notion that this was very much about New York City.
What was your sense of the awards season climate at that time?
John Sloss, Karol Martesko and a bunch of others who were involved in those early discussions were very much trying not to compete with other big award events, most importantly the Spirit Awards, because that was our sister organization in those days. They were the IFP West and we were IFP in New York, so we wanted to be respectable of their mandate and what they were doing in the award space. I don’t want to say that we were the anti-Spirit Awards, but we were the counter-Spirit Awards. Our event was not going to be a Hollywood event. It was going to be an event where New Yorkers could come together and celebrate what it is to be uniquely independent in this community. The reason I emphasize all of that is those elements that were at the founding of the event are less evident today. That’s not meant as a criticism. It’s just to say that the event has grown in terms of reach and in terms of aspirations from what it was. It was for insiders: People from New York talking to other New Yorkers.
How would you describe the needs of the indie film community at that time?
Maybe this was far too elitist, but basically, the belief was that people were making independent films not because they wanted to end up in Hollywood; they were making independent films because it had to do with our cultural community and a legacy of what it is to make art — not just film art, but art in general in New York City. So it was a way to bolster and to support a community that was struggling then, and continues to struggle today, vis-à-vis Hollywood. If you want to be a filmmaker, most people were saying, “Head to L.A.” What we were saying is we want you to support a driving, rich, cultural filmmaking community here in New York City.
That doesn’t sound elitist so much as practical.
I was around for the first six Gotham Awards, and we had very, very strict rules. You had to be from New York. You had to be a resident of New York. And then, of course, as time went on we got practical: “Well, how strong was his ties or her ties to New York?” Was Richard Linklater a New York filmmaker? Well, no, he’s not. He’s from Texas. But he represented the spirit of what it was we were trying to do. So it was things like that.
How did the first year go?
I’m embarrassed to say that I can’t actually remember where we held the first one. It was in a supper club in midtown that no longer exists. It held no more than 375 people, maybe 400. There were two tiers of tables, and Charles Grodin was the host. That was a very typical Gotham Awards’ selection. We wanted a New Yorker who would get what it was that we were trying to do even though he was in TV and made those “Beethoven” movies and he was a Hollywood person. He had those links. He lived in New York. John Turturro was honored for his body of work. We didn’t want to look at single films. We looked at bodies of work. There were no winners.
In addition to Turturro, you also honored Jonathan Demme, Ernest Dickerson and Michael Hausman that year. Jenny Livingston got a breakthrough director award for “Paris is Burning.” How did you settle on that bunch?
The idea was that these were intimate events where everyone kind of new each other or they at least had six degrees of separation. There was a committee. There was no vote. We selected the people and had lively discussions about why we thought somebody was deserving or not. For us, it was so obvious to give an award to Ernest Dickerson. He totally represented everything that we wanted to celebrate in New York. It was a very small, community-based exercise. And I don’t think we made any big mistakes in those early years in terms of honoring people.
We always had one person from a craft — one person from writing, one person from directing, one business person and then one breakthrough artist. I think everybody in the room felt like, “Oh, yes, Thelma Schoonmaker, of course.” Or whoever it was. When we gave the award to Tom Kalin [for “Swoon”], everyone went, “Of course. What a great film.”
In some ways it takes away that element of prognostication that dominates awards season. You were just curating some of the highlights of your world.
That was the point. It was the idea of curating the best of what we considered to be a truly independent, creative spirit in that craft or whatever domain or discipline the person was in.
How do you feel about the Gothams now? The shift is dramatic, since it now contains more traditional categories, and also honors television.
Well, I recognize that it was pragmatic. They had to remain relevant. I mean, the whole world has changed. We’re talking 25 years. That makes me very old. I noticed in this year’s awards they have a category for web series [“Breakthrough Series — Short Form”]. The world has changed. If I were running the IFP today, I probably would be doing the same thing. I’d be doing the whole thing on the Internet. Making feature films almost feels like an anachronism to me. It’s an extremely difficult undertaking. It was always difficult, and now it just feels monumentally difficult. So maybe the Gothams are more relevant.
You’re saying that since the challenge is greater, the celebration has more value.
Quite frankly, it’s not just about making the movies, it’s getting people to watch them. That, to me, is the big missing piece in the equation. However hard it was to get screen time with these films back in the nineties, the reality is we had more arthouse films and more arthouse distributors. There was a feeling that you could break through with a film. I remember IFP markets where we had Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” one year and Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” one year and it just felt like we were part of something that was big and important. I just don’t feel that in the independent feature world to the same extent. That’s all happening on YouTube now. The discourse has shifted to a different platform and different tools. The actual making of an independent feature film that’s 90 minutes in length is like a violin concerto.
So what do you see as the challenge facing content creators today?
I hope that they’re able to translate what the spirit of independent filmmaking was to this new platform. But I’m not sure PewDiePie is thinking everyday, “How am I an independent spirit?” But surely he is. Right?
How would you characterize it?
In the fact that he just turns the camera on himself. But it’s a very different thing. Part of what we did with the Gothams was that we were very mindful of the collective nature of filmmaking, which was why we always honored a craftsperson. I remember when we had David Cronenberg giving the prize to [composer] Howard Shore. These were big moments.
What are some others that stand out in your memory?
There are a handful. I will only talk about the ones where I was involved, the first six. I’ll mention some of the more touching moments over exciting moments. One would be when Michael Moore called upon Sam Cohn to give his moth-bitten cashmere sweater up to be auctioned, and that created a great brouhaha because everybody knew that Sam Cohn always wore the same baby blue cashmere sweater. So that was very insider. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it was actually a big deal. He tore his sweater off and this guy from Fox bought it. It created a sort of buzz in the room. That was the year Ted Turner came to give the award to Bob Shaye from New Line Cinema. We had Absolut Vodka as a sponsor so they had shot glasses with everybody’s names on them and they were all doing shots.
Madonna was also there and she gave the award to Abel Ferrara. It was a really, really interesting night. That was probably the most star-studded one. We had Christopher Walken and Harvey Keitel and Scorsese all there that night. It really felt like New York’s very, very best.
What stands out to you about the ongoing lifespan of this awards show?
It’s a tribute to the longevity and legacy of this community that the Gothams are still there. It’s a wonderful thing that the baton has been passed on. I would like to see more of those trailblazers — people like John Sayles and Scorsese and Tarantino. All of those people that were so key. I worry sometimes: Where’s the next generation of that kind of expression? Even Steven Soderbergh says he’s not making feature films anymore. Instead, he’s making “The Knick.” Maybe that’s just the way it is. Maybe this form of art has seen its day, but that worries me a little bit. So it’s good that the Gothams are still there and that they remain relevant to this day to a community of artists who are expressing themselves. If people are going to do that in webseries or YouTube or, god, virtual reality, I’m all for it. Maybe it’s not necessary to hang onto some old art form.