November 16, 2018

What It Takes to Put On an Awards Ceremony: Inside the 2018 IFP Gotham Awards

The 28th Annual IFP Gotham Awards will take place Monday, November 26th.

Annually taking place the Monday after Thanksgiving at Cipriani Wall Street in downtown Manhattan, the IFP Gotham Awards remain both its own invention and a preview of what's to come further down the line through the awards season. With competitive categories including Best Feature, Actor, Actress, Screenplay, Documentary, Breakthrough Director, Series (Short-Form), and Series (Long-Form), the Gothams set the tone for the work that should be recognized but so often isn't.

Small juries (comprised primarily of film journalists) make up the committees that select the nominees and equally small juries (comprised of those working in the film industry) subsequently select the winners. Are these a small sample size of opinions? Sure, but as previous editions of the ceremony have proven, their voices are heard loud and clear once the winners are announced at the podium.

“There has been a rich abundance of great films, television, and performances in 2018, and we congratulate those being recognized in the nominations this year,” said Joana Vicente, Executive Director of IFP and the Made in NY Media Center, in a statement.

The Gotham Awards also celebrate individual achievements via its Tribute categories, honoring a pre-selected director, actress, actor, and industry type. This year's tributees include Paul Greengrass (22 July), Rachel Weisz (The Favourite), Willem Dafoe (At Eternity's Gate), and Jon Kamen (Founding Chairman and CEO of RadicalMedia).

As the 2018 edition of the Gotham Awards are just a few days away (you can check out a complete list of this year's nominees, led by Yorgos Lanthimos's The Favourite, here), No Film School spoke with IFP's Senior Director of Programming, Milton Tabbot, about the ceremony's origins, how the nominating committees are put together, the awards' influence on other subsequent award shows in a given season, and a few of his personal favorite memories.

The 2018 IFP Gotham Awards can be streamed live via Filmmaker Magazine (which IFP publishes) beginning at 8pm (with a special red carpet show at 6pm) here.

No Film School: The IFP Gotham Awards have now been around for 28 years. What was the original reason for its creation and what was that inaugural ceremony like?

Milton Tabbot: The first ceremony took place in 1991. I officially came [to work for] IFP five years later. I think the first one I attended was in 1997, maybe. I get confused! But, in terms of the first one, I remember, from having been around through the last three Executive Directors, its original purpose. Back in 1991, IFP had been in existence as an organization for 11-going-on-12 years. The first edition was held under Executive Director, Catherine Tait. At the time, honestly, it had come to a point where IFP thought it needed an annual fundraiser. In terms of keeping up cash flow and having the organization remain in existence, IFP needed an event that would bring in some money. A committee was brought together and the idea was born to honor the New York film community. The committee came up with the concept of giving tributes to a number of individuals. They decided, even back then, that they would be honoring a director, honoring an actor, honoring, possibly, a writer, etc.

For the first good number of years, there was always a below-the-line category for a tribute. There were no nominations and there were no competitive categories. It was all done very collegiately and via the committee coming up with logical people to honor in any given year. But from the beginning, there was an award for a new filmmaker, which then was called the Open Palm award, which has since evolved into the Breakthrough Director Award, but that, similarly, came about via a group coming up with a list of people that they would discuss. That first year, the award went to Jenni Livingston for Paris Is Burning

People paid to attend the event, and it was very much a community event. I would think for a good number of years, even up until when I started, there was this feeling of "This is primarily the New York industry getting together to honor its own." The very first one was at this midtown supper club that no longer exists. Seeing how it evolved pretty much set the pattern for how the Gothams would go: an annual honoring of certain people in the industry on both the creative and business side, and having the community come together.

From the very beginning, the ceremony had a host. The very first one was Charles Grodin. I think he did it for the first two years? That set the pattern for what kind of host we should have, usually, very frequently, either a very talented talker, comedian, writer, "talented person" who could keep the audience entertained between awards. But to go back to the ceremony's original reason for being, it was very much meant as a social gathering that could both honor people in the industry while bringing in some money to the IFP.

NFS: Was the ceremony always broadcast for the general viewing public?

Tabbot: It was and it was actually broadcast on television for a while. From what I know, it was narrowcast on a city TV channel beginning in around 2005 and through 2007, I think, on NYC TV via a partnership with the city. They carried it. Most other times (and in more recent years), the ceremony has been streamed on the internet and now via Facebook Live.

NFS: How long have you been involved in the ceremony's planning and how has your role grown within its preparation?

Tabbot: Well, this is kind of inside baseball, but the Gotham Awards, until 2004, were always in mid-to-late September during what is now called IFP Week. Back then, IFP Week was called the IFP Market, and it occurred simultaneously with the IFP Gotham Awards. Because so much of the year-round staff was involved in producing our year-round programs (and were particularly busy during that week), there was never a crossover and there was a separate production unit for the Gotham Awards. If you were working on staff, except for the Executive Director, you hardly crossed over into the actual planning or production.

In 2002, I had taken a break. I was not working full-time at the IFP for almost two years, but I was still doing one-off programs for the IFP. In 2002, I was involved in what would be the Open Palm (the Breakthrough Director) committee, looking at a number of films to help choose the nominees. Then in a subsequent year, I was on a nominating committee for what became Best Documentary.

In 2004, the ceremony moved from September to late November/early December to be more in sync with award season rather than being a one-off, small event that was mostly about the New York community. The reasoning...I'm not totally sure on, but I know at the time that we got to a point where the question was, "How long can we only honor New York residents and New York workers?" Because the organization had significantly expanded, i.e. all of our programs became more national and IFP Week now involved filmmakers from around the country and we had begun doing international programs, etc. The goal was to look more nationwide, in terms of honoring work. For example, the Breakthrough Director didn't have to live in New York. It would be open to anyone, any American filmmaker making their first film.

The goal was then to make the awards a bigger event. I would say in retrospect, even to myself, "Well, you should add all these new categories and place it at the end of the year," but the reality is, it was a gradual ramp up, so we still continued the notion of tributes. Even prior to moving in 2004, however, we had added a Breakthrough Actor award in 1998 and then we had a Breakthrough Director award to go with it and there were nominees, etc. Nominees came into the picture gradually.

In 2000, we added a Documentary category which lasted for three years, a kind of complement to the Open Palm award in that it was for a first-time documentary filmmaker. It came with a grant, and that was because, at the time, we had a documentary fund for development in documentaries. But in the first three years, it was given as a cash prize to a first time documentary filmmaker. This is all leading up to the ceremony's 2004 move [to the fall season]. When the ceremony moved, the other two categories that were added in that year were Best Feature and Best Documentary, not just for a first-time documentary, but Best Documentary [in general]. That was the year when it was seen more as "Let's go into award season!"

Then I can say then it stayed pretty consistent for about eight years. Well, no, in 2005 we added an Ensemble award and the Best Film Not Playing At A Theater Near You award. Then it stayed pretty stable for about eight years before we added any other awards. It's been a gradual ramp up to where we are today, where Best Actor and Best Actress are also involved (those categories were added in 2013). Best Screenplay and the honoring of long and short-form episodic series came soon after. More particularly, since 2004, and since Best Actor and Best Actress categories were introduced five years ago, I think you see more and more attention given to these awards on an annual basis. That's due to the show being one of the first, if not the first, of [awards season].

NFS: What caused these new categories (such as Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay) to be included in the Gotham Awards and how have you noticed their subsequent impact throughout "awards season"?

Tabbot: I think the goal of the Gothams is still very much what it was, to honor the independent community and to be a fundraiser. One of my mandates is to make sure that the process of the awards feels legitimate, that it has an integrity of its own, and that the whole process is well considered, that the nominations come out of a discussion and it's not just people filling out a ballot and sending it in. It really needs to come from a month-long process of getting to the nominations. I think the main goal is still to bring attention to standout independent work, in the broad sense of however that's changed over the years of independent work. The impact, is to, hopefully, yes, bring attention to all of these films that are singled out in any way as we go into a larger awards system where all kind of movies are honored. There's no intention in the awards themselves (and other people can make their own observations as to whether or not they have an impact). But the goal is to lift up these artists and these films. Whatever happens after that...happens.

NFS: How are those nominees chosen for the Gotham Awards? How are the winners chosen?

Tabbot: Well, I manage the nomination process, and I've pretty much wholly managed it for the last 10 or 12 years. One of the challenges, when we moved to the end of the year, was "How do you honor films from the whole year if you're committed to doing a ceremony in November. What is the process?" Because, for the most part, it is a submission process, as people submit films to be considered. In what is a very, very tight schedule, how do you even make sure that enough films are seen?

Who chooses the nominees: So back when we added Best Feature and Best Documentary around that time, the goal was "Well, let's have people on the nominating juries who come to the process already having seen a good percentage of the work that's been made during the year." So from that point in 2004, the committees became made up of film critics, journalists who are writing about the film scene, and a few festival programmers. And although that works pretty well, there's still a lot of work to be done during that four or five weeks [leading up the jury deliberation], but at least they have a good headstart on what's come out up to that point in the year, by September. Then there's a lot of catching up and looking forward to films that have yet to be released, but that we get access to through distribution companies and through filmmakers, screener links, etc.

Those are the people who are nominating, and we make sure that no one is involved in production, distribution, financing, or are in any way part of that process. There's no conflict of interest for particular companies or particular people. It's made up of people who think and write and talk about movies.

Who chooses the winners: From the nomination process on, there's a whole new set of juries that are comprised of people we didn't nominate before [who decide on the winners from the pre-selected nominee pool]. Not film distributors, but creative people who are actually working in the industry, but, for the most part, don't have any films out that year. They're not in consideration for the awards, itself. These are peer groups of actors, directors, producers, writers, below-the-line artists, etc. These are, again, small juries made up of small committees that make up the nomination. There are individual juries for each category, except for the Audience Award, and except for, last year and this year, the Short Form Series Award, which are voted on by IFP members who do that online. But all the other categories are competitive categories, i.e. Best Feature, Documentary, Breakthrough Actor, Breakthrough Director, Screenplay, Actor, and Actress have individual small committees, small juries of five people, usually a mix within each committee of a writer, actor, director, producer, and below-the-line talent. 

NFS: These competitive categories often have five nominees apiece. Given the small sample size of the nominating committee, are there ever any "battles" that result in a sixth nominee sneaking their way in?

Tabbot: That's kind of a multi-part, multi-answer question. In terms of whether there are five nominees or six nominees, we've always tried to keep it at five so that in most categories in most years, our nominating committee meetings tend to go on (depending on if it's one category or some committees are covering more than one category) for a couple of hours. Sometimes it's more than that because these come out of discussions over who everyone thinks are the top in any category. Ultimately there might have to be a lot to get to five, but it all comes from a healthy discussion.

I would say, in recent years, we've been a bit more lenient, particularly when it's a very rich field. It doesn't always come because of a difference of opinion, but of a difficulty in really not wanting to let go, and getting to an almost tie situation, a place that we've just allowed, "Okay, let's just make it six nominees," particularly in a rich field. 

We used to have a consistent Ensemble performance award, but once we created separate categories for Best Actor and Best Actress, we dropped the Ensemble regular category altogether, thinking it could be an honorary award that we internally, staff-wise, would maybe (like a tribute) come up with on occasion every few years, but not as a regular award; it was to go away as a regular award.

The interesting thing is what has happened several times, almost consistently, over three or four years now, is where the acting committee itself (the nominating committee that selects the Best Actor and Best Actress nominees) is confronted with nominating multiple actors from the same film in a single category [i.e. the three leading men in Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher in 2014 or the three leading ladies in this year's The Favourite). The committee brings it up and asks, "Is there a way to give a special award here because we would like to see this cast nominated, rather than taking up multiple slots in a good year for whatever else?" It was like, "Okay. We can do that." It really comes down to discussion. It just happens, and it's come up several years in a row now.

NFS: Over a three year period (2014-2016), the Gotham Award for Best Feature went to the film that would ultimately go on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture: BirdmanSpotlight, and Moonlight. Do you see the Gotham Awards as a strong influence on the awards ceremonies that follow later in the season?

Tabbot: Well, it goes back to what I was saying before. I think when it happened with Birdman, it just happened to be like, "Wow. That's fabulous. Our Best Feature winner is also [the Academy Award winner for Best Picture]." And then it happened again and again. I hesitate to draw a line between the Gotham Awards and Oscars because what the Gothams do is become part of this perfect storm of more attention being paid to these idiosyncratic individual films that, for issue films or extremely well-done films that just pop and resonate with a lot of people, it starts in the independent sector, so to speak, and continues through critics awards and ultimately through the Academy Awards. I don't say we were the cause of that because we were so early. Again, it's gratifying that other people embrace some of the films that our committees have thought were best. It works out well.

Is there a cause and effect? Maybe there's a ripple effect. I think it echoes. In this intense period (that starts earlier and earlier through all of the awards into the beginning of the next year), now it's like, "What gets raised up? What gets lifted up? What are people in the industry paying attention to?" I would say that's part of our process, but the goal is not to influence that, really. It's about attention being paid to these artists.

NFS: What are your fondest memories of past Gotham Award ceremonies? Anything affectionately stand out to you personally?

Tabbot: Yeah, I mean, some of those memories come from just meeting people, just being able to say, "Thank you for your work," in person. Isabelle Huppert winning Best Actress [for Elle] was one of my high points, as was meeting Marcia Jean Kurtz. She was an actor I admired for a very long time in theater and in character roles and films, one of which, Big Fan, was nominated one year, and she attended the awards, and I got to meet her.

But then there are great moments like Dan Talbot's speech or when Sidney Lumet was honored. There are people who create these moments and sometimes they stand out because maybe they talk for a very long time or whatever. But it's kind of what makes the ceremony, itself, alive and interesting. That when people really do speak from the heart, they're gullible. I mean, what keeps them working as an artist dovetails with the reason that we're doing all of this, and their ability to articulate that is really great. Richard Linklater's speech from several years ago was so good. Some of the speeches are very rewarding.

NFS: Are they any changes to the ceremony in the works for 2019?

Tabbot: I can't say anything, but I do think (because this will all happen next year as we go toward the Gothams) there could be a couple of new categories added, but that all has to go through the board and Gotham committees, in terms of planning for next year's awards. But every year, we do a kind of rethink. It's like, "Is there anything we should add, anything we should change?" We frequently get so caught up in the process that we don't have time [to reevaluate], but I know in the next year we will be looking at what needs to be tweaked and what we can add.     

For more information on this years IFP Gotham Awards, click here.

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