The Gotham Awards were the first awards to announce their nominees this season, and the awards themselves are celebrating their 30th anniversary. On top of all of this, the organization is no longer known as IFP but rather The Gotham Film & Media Institute, aka The Gotham. This organization has served as pioneers in putting independent cinema at the forefront. Executive Director Jeff Sharp (who also produced independent gems like Boys Don’t Cry and You Can Count on Me) detailed the evolution of this organization, the hard work of supporting independent cinema, and how it nurtures young talent in the film community — all of this in a pandemic.
I met Jeff at the Gotham Awards in person last year. He has held the role of Executive Director for about a year and a half now, and his dynamism and excitement for cultivating space for independent cinema and diverse voices in the community is boundless. Inclusivity and space for young talent is something that stood out from our conversation. This year, all of the Best Feature Film nominees were directed by women. This is the first year Gotham has included an International Feature category. Gotham has expanded to honoring television. The awards are also being live streamed with permission and in conjunction with studios, which will be a first!
Access to independent cinema is crucial and Jeff Sharp and the leaders at the Gotham Film & Media Institute continue to pave the way with more film submissions than ever before. The Gotham will honor some of the best from film and television in 2020 on January 11 at 8:00 pm. Check out more of our conversation below:
Awards Daily: The Gotham has done amazing work for film over the years. Congratulations 30 years with the awards! How does it feel to be at this point?
Jeff Sharp: Well you know for me, I have been Executive Director for a year and a half. I started as an independent film producer in 1999 with You Can Count on Me. I have experienced the Gotham Awards as a producer and Executive Director. It is with enormous scale that I get to look back and appreciate the organization.
With the organization at large, I appreciate the vision folks had back in 1979 who celebrated independent film and cultivated this, and now the Gotham Awards which are 30 years old that elevate independent films into the lexicon.
AD: Diversity and inclusion are at the heart of your organization. How does it feel to bring films like The 40 Year Old Version, Miss Juneteenth and more International Features to the forefront of the world of cinema?
JS: Celebrating independent film is more important than ever this year, especially without the theatrical release. Many films did not get that traditional release. First Cow was in theatres for a week or so before the pandemic and many films like Miss Juneteenth, Beanpole, and The Forty Year Old Version had festival releases, but they did not get the traditional roll out because of the pandemic. I appreciate that we get to bring these films to the lexicon of the general public. I do not think there is a general awareness of films to watch this year.
It’s important to note that we had a record number of submissions. We also introduced the best international feature. We had a fantastic crop of independent films this year, and it will be exciting to highlight them even more at the ceremony on Monday.
AD: The Gotham Awards have been at the forefront of not only nominating films about that center of stories about the Black experience or the queer experience, but these films have continually won numerous prizes. How does it feel to be at the forefront of championing these stories in film?
JS: We won the Open Palm Award with You Can Count on Me. This was the first award I had been recognized for. That sort of recognition early on was a staggered achievement for myself, Kenneth Lonnergan, and the cast. Winning an award or being honored by the Gotham Awards is about telling great stories.
Jenny Livingston was our first tribute in 1990 for Paris is Burning, and I think that simply shows that Gotham not only represents great independent cinema, but it values the diverse stories that have always existed on the screen. I think our mission is to cast the broadest of lenses for diversity in the achievement in this industry. We have a real opportunity to recognize so many unique voices in the film industry, and this is something we have tried our best to accomplish.
AD: Your evolution of your mission and expanding your mandate for media is exciting. Talk to me about your goals for The Gotham Film & Media Institute, aka The Gotham.
JS: I think consistent with that, more inclusivity is important. Our words did not speak to young filmmakers. If you do not know what IFP stands for how do you know you qualify?
From our labs to our educational programs we needed to re-brand. This conversation had been going on for years. I brought on a really great branding team who dug into our roots, from the Maverick spirit of New York City to the heart of celebrating film. As an independent creator myself I think it’s exciting that we are expanding into the podcast realm. You do not have to raise millions of dollars, you can tell your story on all these different platforms like Stitcher or Spotify, and then eventually tell your story as a film, if that’s your goal. This evolution will help cultivate young voices in the world of film.
We also have Gotham Edu which is creating a career development track for New York City students along with students at HBCUs, and some Ivy League schools, so they can prospect out what it means to be a storyteller in the film industry. We want to help them plan their career, whether that be as a filmmaker, a programmer, or any other film positions. We had an 8 week program for students but this year we will have a full semester program. It’s foundational in our mission to encourage folks through the exploration and next steps in their career.
AD: How are you navigating this remote world and creating these labs/conferences? What will the Gotham Awards look like this year?
JS: We will be in the Cipriani, and we will have a few presenters. Nominees will be virtual with a table interface. We will be broadcasting out to Facebook Watch. According to Facebook, no one has harnessed that social tool in this capacity or volume for an award show. It’s a bummer we will not all be there together, but I do think when we come back live there will be a sense that we honor the tradition of the show and have expanded the awareness of the films we are supporting. Getting to new folks is exciting. We will come back live next year but we will take everything we learned and will continue to work with Facebook to promote and give access to folks in years to come.