What does an 'economy of means' mean?

When Alexander Payne won an Independent Spirit Award for his Paramount Pictures release “Election,” he reportedly told the crowd that indie film is “not about sources of financing; it’s about spirit and personal expression.” If only it were that pure and simple.

Every year, the IFP Spirit Award nominating committee first decides which films qualify on the basis of financial criteria, and only then looks at aesthetic value. And, as one film executive put it, those financial standards are, at best, arbitrary.

“One year the budget ceiling was $9 million, then it was $12 million, and then came the year of ‘Being John Malkovich,’ ” says producer and Spirits committee chair Jeff Kleeman, “where there was a critical mass of films around $14 million-$15 million, so we upped it to $15 million.”

Prior Spirit committees have barred a host of films that today might be prime contenders, from “The Ice Storm” to “Boogie Nights” to “Jackie Brown.”

This year, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “21 Grams” was disqualified, whereas “House of Sand and Fog,” DreamWorks’ adaptation of Andre Dubus III’s novel, made the cut.

According to IFP/Los Angeles director Dawn Hudson, it’s all about the numbers: “$22 million for ’21 Grams’ and ($16 million) for ‘House of Sand and Fog,’ and it was painful,” she adds, to exclude a film that in style and subject matter so obviously represents the Spirits’ mandate for “uniqueness of vision.”

“It was a tough decision,” Kleeman says, “but you have to draw the line somewhere. And we had to draw the line with the majority and not the minority.” (According to Kleeman, only one other $20 million film was in the running, “Bad Santa.”)

So rather than raise the budget bar further, the 2004 nominating committee chose to grant a Special Distinction Award to “21 Grams,” because, as stated in an official announcement, “the film was not eligible for individual nominations because its budget exceeded the committee’s interpretation of IFP’s criteria of ‘economy of means.'”

“Economy of means,” even Hudson admits, is a vague and subjective guideline that changes from year to year. Defined by one producer as “how well you use what you have,” the particularly ambiguous rule has caused controversy for the Spirits in the past.

When the 1995 nominating committee allowed “Bullets Over Broadway,” Woody Allen’s $22 million Miramax comedy, to compete against films such as “Red Rock West” and “Vanya on 42nd Street,” citing the film’s stellar cast and period design for such a reasonable budget, “the IFP board was outraged,” Hudson says. “They said, ‘We’ve given you too much free rein.’ “

The fallout led to further refining of the rule with the addition of the clause “economy of means, with particular attention paid to total budget and individual compensation.”

Since then, Hudson says, no film produced for over $15 million has been nominated.

But as financing for specialized features increases, the Spirits have been forced to enact measures so that lower-budget films will not be left behind.

“If we raised our budget cutoffs to be reflective of the industry as a whole, we created an unfair competitive situation for the low-budget films,” Kleeman admits. “It’s unfair to ask a movie that was made for $450,000 to compete with a movie that was made for $15 million, so we created the category ‘best film under $500,000′ (now known as the John Cassavetes Award) four years ago.”

But lower-budget indies don’t want to be ghettoized.

Says producer Ross Katz, whose “Lost in Translation” is multinommed this year: “When we made ‘In the Bedroom,’ we didn’t want to have to apologize for the budget. We didn’t want to say, ‘It’s a good movie for a low-budget movie.'”

Mary Jane Skalski, nominated for the Cassavetes Award and the Producers Award for “The Station Agent,” also resists the notion that “financial struggle” should be a “part of what gives a film more ‘independent spirit.'”

Skalski doesn’t deride the openness of the “economy of means” rule and the inclusion of larger specialized features in the competition. “By giving recognition to a variety of films across budgetary ranges, this brings more attention to all the awards, which is good for all the films that are nominated.”

But it might not be good for all those films’ chances of winning a prize. Whereas a 13-person committee slogged through 190 movies to determine the nominations, the winners are voted upon by the IFP’s general membership, whose exposure to smaller films is more limited.

As Kleeman admits: “Having a major studio’s marketing and distribution force behind a film helps get the movie seen, so in terms of winning an award, it does privilege those movies that are with the studios.”

Still, Katz refuses to take part in what he calls the “reverse snobbery” of the indie business, which says, “I’m more independent and I’m more edgy than you.

“I don’t think these boundaries need to be set up,” he adds. “A good movie is a good movie.”

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