Nineteen years after he attended the Gotham Awards for the first time, Jeffrey Sharp is overseeing the closely watched kudofest as the Independent Filmmaker Project’s new executive director.
Under former exec director Joana Vicente’s nine-year tenure at IFP, the Gotham Awards expanded from a small New York-centric dinner that honored the year’s best under-the-radar films to a critical early campaign event for underdog Oscar contenders. During a three-year run from 2014 to 2016, the kudofest honored “Birdman,” “Spotlight” and “Moonlight,” respectively, and each film went on to garner an Oscar for best picture. Vicente, who exited to become co-head of the Toronto Intl. Film Festival, was also in part responsible for adding acting categories to the Gothams in 2013. That helped it draw big names including Julianne Moore (“Still Alice”) and Matthew McConaughey (“Dallas Buyers Club”).
But in 2000, Sharp says, the kudofest was a low-key, quirky event that didn’t draw mainstream media attention.
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“We basically just showed up and celebrated our community’s accomplishments,” says Sharp. He produced “You Can Count on Me,” for which Kenneth Lonergan earned a Gotham nom. “What’s nice about the show’s evolution is that it now serves as a platform to support so many more filmmakers and films than it did in the early days.”
While there are no discernible tweaks this year, Sharp, appointed to the post in March, has plenty of ideas on how to expand the impact and reach of the Gotham Awards going forward.
In addition to incorporating sponsors including Audible into the mix, Sharp is exploring national broadcast opportunities for the celebratory dinner, a fundraiser for IFP that brings in more than $1 million to the org. From 2005 to 2007, a local New York City TV channel aired the ceremony and in recent years the show has been streamed on the internet via Facebook Live.
“Broadcast opportunities is something we are actively exploring,” says Sharp, co-founder of Story Mining and Supply Co., which produces the TV series “Outlander” for Starz, and also a producer of the seminal 1999 indie hit “Boys Don’t Cry.” “I was actually surprised when I first arrived that that was something that hadn’t been more fully explored in previous years because the Gothams are a really unique event and it’s a great party. It’s kind of like an old-school Golden Globes — a very insidery industry event where people can let their hair down. Now with all of these emerging platforms to present content, it seems like the right time [to broadcast].”
Increasingly starry attendance would also help make the case for Gotham broadcast. This year’s nominees include Adam Sandler, Olivia Wilde, Adam Driver and Elisabeth Moss. Additionally, tribute awards will be given to Laura Dern, Sam Rockwell and Ava DuVernay, as well as FilmNation founder-CEO Glen Basner.
But IFP’s senior director of programming Milton Tabbot, who has been with org since 1996, says a broadcast might be challenging.
“One issue is that there’s not that many award categories,” Tabbot says. “So would there be a broad interest? I mean there are issues with the ratings for the Academy Awards. I know the Gothams are not the same as the Oscars, but I think broadcasters would be concerned [with] the smallness of our show and with ratings.”
What Sharp and Tabbot do agree on is the spirit of the show, which encourages and celebrates new talent and diverse voices in film and television.
One of those new voices is Chris Galust who stars in “Give Me Liberty,” about a young Russian immigrant and medical transport driver for people with disabilities. The film, which debuted at Sundance, is Galust’s first film. Not only did he star in “Give Me Liberty,” but in true indie form, he also served as the production driver.
Galust is nominated for breakthrough actor alongside Julia Fox (“Uncut Gems”), Aisling Franciosi (“The Nightingale”), Noah Jupe (“Honey Boy”), Jonathan Majors (“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”), and Taylor Russell (“Waves”).
“It gives me more encouragement to pursue acting more seriously,” says Galust. “Acting wasn’t a career I was thinking about until [casting director] Jennifer [Venditti] found me in a supermarket and asked if I would be interested in acting in a project she was casting.”
For Sharp, one of the most exciting parts of the ceremony is honoring such newbies.
“It’s the behind-the-scenes of what we do here at IFP that ultimately get celebrated at Gotham Awards,” Sharp says.
Nanfu Wang, co-director of the documentary “One Child Nation” about China’s policy of forcibly restricting family size, is nominated for a Gotham this year. The director participated in three IFP filmmaking labs in 2014 and 2015, which helped complete her 2016 debut feature docu “Hooligan Sparrow.” “One Child Nation” is her third doc feature.
“When I was in the IFP labs it felt like my film graduate school,” Wang says. “That’s where I learned about the Gotham Awards and I remember thinking that it would be so cool if my film was up for an award. So it feels really great to nominated this year.”