IFP/West's beach bash is a cool antidote to Oscar hype

And the award for best embodiment of the spirit of the Independent Spirit Awards goes to … the cast and crew of “Kaaterskill Falls.” All five of them. (OK, six including the all-purpose clapper/sandwich-maker).

Although the show has increasingly attracted A-list talent to its pre-Oscar prize-giving (Jodie Foster, Steven Soderbergh and the Coen brothers have graced the event’s red carpet in recent years), “Falls,” with its reportedly sub-$25,000 budget, is the kind of hard-core indie production story that kudos sponsor Independent Feature Project/West likes to feature as much as anything else.

“Every year there are a number of fantastic films that fall below the radar,” says Dawn Hudson, exec director of IFP/West. “There’s a great deal of excitement for us when we can honor work that, for any number of reasons, may never find a distributor and be seen by an audience that would embrace it.”

Among four other films nominated for the John Cassavetes Award (given to the best feature made for under $500,000), “Kaaterskill” was shot over 13 noncontinuous days between April and Labor Day 2000. Co-directors-producers Josh Apter and Peter Olsen were the totality of the crew, often aided in lighting setups by cast members Hilary Howard, Anthony Leslie and Mitchell Riggs.

“It has been frustrating getting people (in the industry) to look at the film,” says Olsen from his Gotham home. “Without some name talent these days it’s almost impossible to get people interested.”

At last year’s Los Angeles Film Festival (now run by the IFP/West), the movie got the critics’ prize but not a distrib.

Despite that, Apter says he remains optimistic, citing the career arc of Brit helmer-writer Christopher Nolan (himself up for screenplay and directing honors), who went from the minibudgeted “Following” to directing and writing “Memento.” “If we win the award it may be all we need to get the attention of the right executive.”

“Where the power of the Spirit Awards lies is in their ability to help filmmakers connect with the right distributor,” says Jeff Lipsky, president of Gotham-based Lot 47 Films and a board member of IFP/East.

As far as any Oscarlike impact on box office for already released films: “It’s minimal at best,” Lipsky says. “If they are on the totem pole, they’re below the ground.”

Like any kudosfest, Lipsky says the Spirit Awards are about eye candy and ego-stroking more than anything else.

Meritocracy

Their meaning to the bottom line notwithstanding, rookie helmer and nominee Alan Cumming says they’re still a refreshing alternative to the Oscars. “It feels great to be nominated for a Spirit Award, because there isn’t an agenda. Films are singled out more on their merits than the size of their marketing budget.”

Cumming co-directed “The Anniversary Party” with Jennifer Jason Leigh and shares the nomination with her. “The Spirit Awards do seem to help tip the scales back towards the underdog,” he says.

When the Spirit Awards first got under way in the mid-1980s, few power players in Hollywood were paying attention to independent films such as “River’s Edge” and “Powwow Highway.” Now, 17 years later, with award shows springing up seemingly every six months, the original mission of the kudos event is getting harder fulfill.

In 1995, when the very mainstream Woody Allen comedy “Bullets Over Broadway” was on the list of noms, some critics said the difference between the Golden Globes, the Oscars and the Spirits was getting too hard to discern.

“That was a bit of a watershed year for us,” says Hudson. One of the key criterion of the kudos is that a project should be achieved with “an economy of means.” Clearly, the $20 million-plus budget of a Woody Allen laffer isn’t exactly slumming.

Hard rules

Nonetheless, the nine-person nominating committee (which this year includes New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell, thesp Vondie Curtis Hall and helmer Miguel Arteta) is never given hard, set rules.

“We just ask that they pay attention to a film’s budget and individual compensation,” Hunt continues. Other considerations for a nom include: a need to recognize original and provocative subject matter, uniqueness of vision and exactly how independent the source of a given film’s funding is.

This year’s list of nominees has managed to differentiate itself from the mainstream award shows as much as any year. In the major categories, only Todd Field’s debut, “In the Bedroom,” and its cast have Oscar and Spirit noms. Other than that, only one documentary title, “Promises,” and one foreign-language film, “Amelie,” made both orgs’ final cuts.

“This year’s group is very edgy,” says a nominated filmmaker. “Very much outside the Academy’s predilections.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more