It is hard to believe that on Saturday the Independent Spirit Awards will be celebrating their 30th anniversary in that giant tent erected each year on the Santa Monica beach. I remember as a young producer of movie coverage at Entertainment Tonight attending one of the earliest Spirits gatherings in 1988 at the 385 North Restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard.
It was so intimate they actually sat me at a table near the stage with Jodie Foster, Meg Ryan and her then-husband Dennis Quaid. I was the only one at that table that even I had never heard of. But that was a very small affair.
The saying used to go, “Win on Saturday, lose on Sunday.” It refers to the truism that though the Spirits have typically been held the day before the Oscars, but the winners were often very different, especially in terms of budgets. Going right before Oscars was a way to cash in on all the big names who were in town. I don’t exactly recall if that particular ceremony was on a Saturday, or even the day before Oscars, but it doesn’t really matter.
I do recall that the year before, when Platoon would be cleaning up at both shows, that I had to beg the powers that be at ETeven to cover the Spirits.
“What show is that?” they would say. “We’re too busy with the Oscars.”
But I prevailed, and we did send a crew. I think I have been to just about every Indie Spirit show since and certainly all of them since they began doing them at the beach more than two decades ago (there was an ill-advised move downtown on a Friday night for its 25th anniversary, but that idea was jettisoned after one year). So I always look forward to this show. It’s the hip alternative to the Oscars, but in many years the Academy Awards themselves look more like the Indie Spirits. Forget BAFTA, DGA, PGA, SAG. This year it is looking like the Spirits could turn out to be the best indicator for what will win the next night at the Oscars.
Four of the five nominees for Best Feature at the Spirits — Boyhood, Birdman, Selma and Whiplash — are also up for Best Picture at the Oscars. Film Independent President Josh Welsh, head of the group that puts on this show, really doesn’t mind the comparison. He gets asked all the time.
“To the extent that there’s overlap between the Spirit Awards and other shows (i.e. Oscar), I actually think it’s a good thing,” Welsh told me this week. “I have no problem with it. Our mission is to build the audience for independent film. If other award shows are recognizing independent films that we’re excited about, that’s a good thing.”
He noted with pride that the Spirits also recognize lesser-known films this year such as Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, Love Is Strange and Dear White People.
“It speaks to the fact that independent film is at the heart of our film culture right now,” Welsh said. “The studios are making a lot of franchise tentpole films that generally are not getting recognized in the awards space. The fact that people are going to independent film, that’s where the good work is being done. The other thing I would say is even for the most notable titles at the Spirit Awards, the ones that are recognized at other shows, whether it’s Birdman, Boyhood or Selma, those films to me are completely independent films. Even if they are getting love from the big award shows, they’re still independent through and through. We’re thrilled.”
Even though the Spirits are right at the end of awards season, they are just about the first to announce nominations, usually right before Thanksgiving, when no one has a clue about which way the winds are blowing.
That says a lot about the Spirits’ foresight and originality, Welsh says. They are first, the one that others follow. It is entirely possible this year that the Spirits and the Oscars will have the same winners in all four acting categories, director, documentary feature, foreign film and best film.
That’s pretty impressive for the Spirits, considering they made their nominations nearly two months before the Academy took a shot or even the first critics group had weighed in. Committees determine those nominees, and they do their homework. So are the Spirits trying to be just like the Oscars — or is it actually, oddly, the other way around?
12 Years A Slave last year and The Artist in 2011 are other recent Best Picture winners on which the two groups agreed. Of course, the Spirits don’t cast the same wide net of contenders, because their candidates must be budgeted at less than $20 million.
But would the Spirits, in the spirit of being completely independent, ever consider moving away from the comfort and press frenzy of being part of Oscar weekend?
“We talk about it,” Welsh said. “I’d say it’s kind of idle at this point. We feel like people generally like where we fall.”
The lag time between nominations and actual awards allows more time for filmmakers and films to get exposure as they build awareness and educate voters, rather than just letting people vote for the ones with the biggest marketing budgets. Welsh also proudly says membership in Film Independent is up 30 percent in the last two years.
And about lasting 30 years and still going strong?
“It is a big number,” Welsh says. “We’re very excited to commemorate the occasion. We decided to take the show live this year, which hasn’t been done in a very long time.”
The show will air on IFC at 2pm PT, instead of the late-night tape-delay broadcast of the last few years.
The different approach came from a need to do something special this year, but it could start a trend. And for the first time Welsh can recall the show will have two hosts, Fred Armisen and Kristen Bell as well as new executive producer Joel Gallen, who has lots of live TV experience. Welsh said the organization and the show itself have never been stronger but that the 30th year forces some navel gazing and reflection.
“One of the things that strikes me about it, and I think this has been true for several years, but now that the show is 30 years old, you look at who’s coming,” Welsh said. “The Spirit Awards have always recognized new talent with the Best First Feature. But what you see this year are nominees who are really veterans of independent film. Jim Jarmusch has a film that’s nominated (Only Lovers Left Alive). I think he was nominated back in ’87 for Down By Law. Julianne Moore won for Shortcuts in ’94. Richard Linklater had Slacker at the Spirits in ’92. These are people who have been making independent film by choice. This is a space they want to be in for 2o, 30 years. I love seeing that, that mix of new talent blending in with their elders. I mean it’s funny to think of them that way but these people who’ve been doing this for decades, they still want to be doing it. It still is a vital, exciting area of filmmaking. It’s great.”
The 30th annual Independent Spirit Awards will air live on IFC at 2 PM PT on Saturday.