The Independent Feature Project was started back in 1979 to support independent filmmakers making no-budget films. Over the past 26 years, the IFP had grown into an important institution within the film community, quickly spawning a Los Angeles-based chapter in 1980 and eventually also expanding to Chicago, Seattle and Minneapolis. (There was also a Miami chapter, but it was shut down in May.) All of the individual local groups retained their own autonomy, and membership was actually purchased separately, yet they all were related and supported each other.
A couple years ago, the IFPs decided they wanted to become more unified, though, so they all changed their names ... sort of. New York, which had simply been IFP, became IFP/NY. LA, which went by IFP West became IFP/LA. And so on. But the dirty little secret (which I'm sure would be heavily disputed by those closely involved with IFP/NY, but not me, and as I've mentioned before, I've been a member of the New York chapter for years), a long time ago the Los Angeles chapter began to overshadow, at least publicly, New York. Independent film as an entity may, for all intents and purposes, still have been largely centered here, but its marketing and public shouts from the rooftops were coming from IFP/West.
The most notable example of this was the establishment of the IFP/West Independent Spirit Awards which were launched in 1984 as the "Friends of Independent Film Awards" and were then rechristened in 1986 with their current name. The purpose was to give independent film -- at the time still not widely recognized or celebrated during awards season -- its own version of the Oscars. (Is that true? Have the indies changed so much? Has classification of an indie always been a bit controversial. Well, in 1986, the Best Feature winner was Martin Scorsese's After Hours which had a $4.5 Million budget and was distributed by Warner Bros.) They were originally a relatively informal event -- a luncheon under a big tent. By the time I attended my first one (as a writer for the UCLA Daily Bruin) in 1993, they were still a relatively casual party, and the tent covered the parking lot at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood. When I moved to New York in 1996, they were still that way, and if you weren't in LA, you had no way of seeing them, although I do remember in 1997 or 1998 going to the Knitting Factory to watch a closed circuit feed with a bunch of other NY film industry geeks. Much has changed over the past decade, though. Now the Spirits have major sponsorship and air live on IFC. They used to then be reedited for broadcast on Bravo, but now Rainbow Media is keeping it in the family with the delayed version to air on AMC. The Spirit Awards are a big event in the film world now. All the major rags cover it; all the major indie players attend it; there's a long red carpet; and while it may all still take place under a tent, it's a much larger one on top of a beach in Santa Monica. The show is actually put on with slightly more production value and even cheesy (often lame) production numbers.
Oh yeah, and then the IFP/West or IFP/LA went and created the Los Angeles Film Festival going into (I believe) its 12th year when this June's event occurs. So basically, why is it that anyone was surprised when the leaders of IFP/LA decided they didn't want to be tethered to the New York mothership any longer, at least not formally. Sure there still seems to be some reciprocity here or there -- they each mention each other on their web pages, natch -- but why not come up with a craptastic acronym like FIND, rename yourself Film Independent and strike out on your own. Because really, what does IFP/NY have.
Well, IFP/NY actually has a lot; they just don't market themselves as well. And while the organization does, in fact, do a lot to help support local indie filmmakers, their events have always retained a slight dirty-stepchild feel compared to LA's. And the prime example is the IFP/NY's annual Gotham Awards, which happen tonight. (Yeah it took me a while to get here, but see? I do have a point.)
What are the Gothams anyway, you ask. Well, they were started in 1991 and they used to be held in September. They were established in order to ... wait a second ... let me just cut and paste from the website here:
The Gotham Awrds [sic] were established in 1991 to celebrate the authentic voices behind and in front of the camera in the year's best films. By recognizing that the best films come from a place that is more firmly rooted in the grasp of filmmakers - and not made by committee - the Gothams salute the innovative films and filmmakers whose passion and vision make their way onto the screen year after year.
Film Independent's annual Spirit Awards are nominated by committees of of critics and film industry professionals, but then they're put to a vote of the entire Film Independent membership. (And formerly the entire IFP -- I don't believe that's the case any longer so if I want to vote this year I guess I need to join FIND.) Does that delegitimize them a little bit, when basically anyone willing to spend $100 a year to join could vote? I don't know. Maybe. But not really because the film industry "professionals" who vote for Oscar obviously often don't have a clue, and really, who's going to spend even $100 (or more for varying levels of membership) unless they give a crap.
But that's beside the point. Back to the Gothams. I'm not sure who I know who bestows these awards. As I mentioned, they used to be held in September until a year or two ago when IFP/NY realized that September was a silly and pointless time to hand out film awards because unless you're a festival (and maybe even then), nobody cares anymore and is looking ahead to the year-enders. So they moved it. To the beginning of December. In a blatant attempt for relevancy, they want to be the first organization out of the box, before the National Board of Review or the various metropolitan critics circles. They now bestow six competitive awards annually -- Best Feature, Best Documentary, Best Ensemble Cast, best Actor, Breakthrough Actor, Breakthrough Director and Best Film Not Playing at a Theatre Near You. Actually, you can't really help but be grateful for awards like this, especially the last four which truly do symbolize some sort of spirit of independent film.
Yet I still wonder, who's making the decisions on all the nominees and the eventual winners. I have no idea. Is it the IFP Board of Directors? It is the IFP/NY staff? Is it some sort of committee? Why doesn't IFP/NY hold screenings for its membership the way IFP/LA always did (and Film Independent continues to do). In fact, last year for the first time, IFP/LA even partnered with Netflix to allow members to rent all the films on DVD (even those that didn't yet have official DVD releases) so they didn't need to make the two LA screenings or one NY screening of each film.
If you're curious about the Gothams and you don't want to spend the $1000 for a single ticket (not a typo) or $10,000-$100,000 for a whole table (still not a typo), you're welcome to watch it. Live, even. On the web that is. Via the City's web site at www.nyc.gov/tv. Cocktails start at 6 followed by dinner and then the awards. Who knows what time the webcast actually goes live? Also, if you're patient and don't mind waiting a week, Channel 25 (NYC TV) will rebroadcast the show on 12/6, 12/8 and 12/10 from 9-11 PM. Kyra Sedgwick. is the host. Special tributes to Matt Dillon and Jim Jarmusch. And appearances by celebrities and many of the nominees including Heath Ledger, Michelle Williams, Maria Bello, Jesse L. Martin, Terence Howard and David Cronenberg. It may even be a good show. I just wish there wasn't always something so, "Hey Mommy, look at what we can do too" about it.