By Charles Lyons | Thompson on Hollywood November 29, 2011 at 2:51PM
Imagine the culture shock. A few days ago I was in the Amazon, making a short film about the controversial Belo Monte hydroelectric dam. Afterward, I visited Cabelo Seco, a favela on the tip of Maraba. A Welsh art activist, along with his Brazilian wife, had invited me to see the ‘product’ of work they’re doing in a community of 250, which includes teaching song and dance to young girls and boys with no one else to mentor them. The children treated me to a riveting private jam session in my friend’s cramped flat in the favela. Afterwards, it was suggested I make a donation. I offered $300 toward a basketball hoop, to be installed in the town square in coming weeks. The kids are overjoyed, as am I.
That $300 would not have gotten me into the posh Gotham Awards last night, where a ticket to the pre-awards cocktail, dinner and awards show went for $1,000 a pop. However, when TOH asked me to write something, and the Gotham Awards press team, particularly Freida Orange, kindly granted me a last minute press pass, I leaped at the chance. I took a good shower and schlepped my jet-lagged body down to Cipriani Wall Street, just blocks from the Occupy Wall Street encampment I had visited a month before.
It’s been nine years since I’ve attended the Gotham Awards, so forgive me for stating the obvious. During that time, the event has shifted from the Chelsea Piers to, ironically, Wall Street, and of course the independent film scene has imploded, clawed its way back, and re-emerged as something more hybrid than pure, if it ever was. Many of the players I knew as a reporter for Variety are now out of the business; some probably couldn’t afford to attend the Gothams; and others have quietly drifted into making films that look and feel remarkably like the ones studios make. So, I was prepared to find that what once felt somewhat fringe had become in overt ways more corporate.
As I circulated the pre-dinner cocktail scene, I ran into Sony Pictures’ co-president, Tom Bernard, standing with Film Society of Lincoln Center Executive Director, Rose Kuo. To my question, "How has this event changed?" Bernard wryly noted, “They’re a lot more people wearing ties.” I looked around the room at many unfamiliar faces. It was true. Had independent film become its anti-thesis?
With fresh memories of poverty and struggle in the Amazon, this crowd at first blush could easily be confused as just another party by and for the one-percenters. But was it? Peter Bart had always insinuated in Variety staff meetings that the studios were the action, and I never felt he believed that documentaries, for example, were worth a paragraph of print, unless they were about a chum of his named Robert Evans. Was he right? Was it all just one big happy family with its offspring, not them versus us, or were there in fact two separate families that only occasionally interacted, but remained crucially different?
These questions and contradictions, at least in mind, continued through the evening. Midway into a strained series of jokes by hosts Oliver Platt and Eddie Falco, who would have done well to travel miles off script or rewrite the existing one, Ang Lee and Jim Jarmusch took the stage. They were there to introduce their old buddy, Tom Rothman, former attorney, founder and president of Fox Searchlight Pictures, current Chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, and lifetime friend of independent film. Lee and Jarmusch glowed about Rothman. Then he emerged to hearty applause.
“In my experience, all great filmmakers are independent, in the most important sense of that word,” said Rothman, flanked by Jarmusch and Lee, both of whose early work he encouraged and supported. Rothman mentioned films by “established superstars” such as Spielberg, Cameron, Zemeckis, Weir and Ridley Scott and, in the same sentence, “independent giants” such as the men standing behind him, Anthony Minghella, Danny Boyle, Kenneth Branagh, Kim Pierce, Mira Nair, David Lynch, Darren Aronofsky, “and of course tonight’s immensely gifted Searchlight nominees.”
Continued Rothman: “I can tell you that the very best filmmakers, of any stripe, always have an independent vision stemming from clarity of purpose. That vision is not defined by the cost of the film or the source of financing. Audiences don’t care about those things. They only care how a film makes them feel, how it moves them, touches them, or enlightens them.”
There ought to be more Rothmans in today’s film world, fueled by passion, not what Pauline Kael called “the numbers” in her famous 1980 New Yorker article. Rothman is urbane, affable, a lover of the low and high, and, refreshingly, is known as a mogul who wears his feelings on his sleeve. You always know what he thinks, for better or worse. [In a brief interview before the show, near the flashing cameras of the red carpet, Rothman told me independent film had become more marketing-dependent over the last decade.]
But while the spirit of his definitions rang true, I still pondered how exactly the mix of celebrities, established directors, and newcomers paraded past my back stage perch, a snug press area sponsored by companies such as Russian Standard Vodka and haircare experts, BaByliss Pro, fit into one cozy family.
I wasn’t the only one with questions. Columbia Film Professor Annette Insdorf wondered how a film like “Tree of Life,” with a budget of roughly $20 million, fit into the definition of independent film, while Eric Mendelsohn’s “Three Backyards” was overlooked at the Gothams. “Now there’s a film that embodies low-budget, independent, brilliantly-acted courage,” she said. “And ‘A Better Life’ should have been nominated too--a humanist drama that's a kind of ‘Bicycle Thief’ for our time.”
While photographers snapped away at Career Tribute Award Winner, Charlize Theron, who wore a black and white dress split to the navel, and high heels that made her tower over her "Adult" co-star, Patton Oswalt, and at one point nearly fall over, I found myself more intrigued by emerging talent benefiting from the institutional support from the IFP and its partners.
Writer/ director Dee Rees, winner of the Breakthrough Director Award for her Focus Features film “Pariah,” told me she felt “humbled” by the award and now had an “imperative to continue to create."
Lucy Mulloy, winner of euphoria Calvin Klein Spotlight on Women Filmmakers “Live the Dream” $25,000 grant, was no-less thrilled, albeit a little overwhelmed by the glitz. “I’m so isolated in my own little cocoon,” she said, noting that she had grown her movie, “Una Noche,” about three young Cubans who leave Havana for Miami, from her NYU Thesis film and encouragement by Spike Lee, among others. “I’m making this film from pure passion,” she added.
A few minutes later I cornered David Cronenberg, another recipient of a Gotham Career Tribute, who stood clutching his award. On stage, he had said, “I’m a fraud. I’m here because I’m a failure. I’ve failed to sell out.” I wanted to know whether independent film was “back,” and how he viewed the climate. “Low-budget independent filmmakers are amphibians—or frogs and toads,” he told me. “We have very sensitive skins, we’re very sensitive to the environment.”