Are Saturday’s Indie Spirits poised to upstage the Oscars? In at least one category, they may do just that. For the first time in their 26 year history, the Independent Spirit Awards (put on by Film Independent) has matched the Oscars’ complete lineup in any one category. And the Spirits had their list out November 30th, almost two months earlier than the Academy’s announcement on January 25th. But both orgs named Annette Bening, Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Lawrence, Natalie Portman, and Michelle Williams as their picks. So all five of those actresses will compete against each other twice this weekend — first on Saturday afternoon at the beach in Santa Monica where the Spirits take place, and again Sunday night at the Kodak Theatre. (In the case of the Spirits there is also a 6th contender, Greenberg’s Greta Gerwig.) And while Black Swan’s Natalie Portman is favored to win the Oscar, with The Kids Are All Right’s Annette Bening poised for an upset, I would say the true indie darling is Winter’s Bone’s Jennifer Lawrence who will likely prevail at the Spirits along with her film. Even in the Best Film category, four of the five Spirit nominees — Winter’s Bone, The Kids Are All Right, Black Swan, and 127 Hours — are also on the Academy’s 10 Best Pic list (with Spirit choice Greenberg included again). So what does this mean? Is the Academy truly indie in spirit now? Or are the Spirits more in line with mainstream Academy tastes? Or are good female roles found only in low-budget movies these days?
I think perhaps what it means is that the independent film sector, hit hard by the economy in recent years with many majors abandoning their specialty divisions, is now making a bit of a comeback. These mutual nominations, combined with the box office success of many independently produced films this year, as well as the vigorous sales business seen at the recent Sundance Film Festival, are evidence of an upsurge. “This is a corner we wanted to turn. We were waiting for it. I think it’s really exciting that so many independent films are embraced by mainstream audiences, especially this year,” Film Independent Executive Director Dawn Hudson told me over the phone as she prepares for this year’s show. “And what’s really beautiful is these independent filmmakers have been to the Spirits before with other films over the years. It’s really sweet to see these veterans continue to do great work and now to be embraced by larger audiences. It’s a really interesting trend, isn’t it? I think it’s all in the quality of the films, but I also think it’s the evolution of the audience as well.”
The correlation between the Spirits and the Oscars, which are the last two award shows of the season, is a good attention-getter. But as Hudson likes to point out, the real mission of her org is to foster true indie filmmakers — so the other two-thirds of the films nominated are new to the awards circuit and not as widely known. “The one thing we are awfully proud of is nurturing, which what we do all year,” she says. “Our mission is to recognize those voices in those films and put them in the spotlight. And you will be hearing from them in the years to come the same way we are talking about Lisa Cholodenko and Darren Aronofsky now.”
After a one-time experiment for last year’s 25th anniversary, which saw the Spirits move Downtown to LA Live on the Friday night of Oscar weekend, the show is back in its traditional digs of that enormous tent at the beach and traditional time slot of Saturday afternoon. There were some complaints last year about the move, but Hudson says Film Independent was just trying something different with a “late night party” but now has returned to its roots and more casual atmosphere. However, Film Independent’s Los Angeles Film Festival will be back downtown for a second year in June because, she says, filmmakers and audiences loved the venue.
One change from last year that is being kept will be the late-night TV broadcast time on IFC. Hudson says that worked well rather than going live in the afternoon. So, for the first time in their broadcast history, the Spirits, hosted this year by Joel McHale and which start at 2 PM PT, will be tape-delayed and aired at 10 PM Saturday night on IFC. Is Hudson worried that the winners will be splashed all over the Internet well before airtime? “IFC was happy with the show as a late-night broadcast, and I think people are ready to watch an awards show about independent film more at 10 PM than 2 PM,” she says. “And with the Spirits, more than any other show, it’s really about the winners, the acceptance speeches, the comedy, the ‘anything can happen’ feel of it.”