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Going to the big top

Red-carpet preshow and more celebs up the ante this year

The tent at the beach is as big as it’s going to get, but the thrill of getting into the Independent Spirit Awards only grows with each year. That’s because the annual fete is first and foremost a party, a carefully fostered arena for scrappy filmmakers, emerging actors and edge-seeking bigwigs to let loose — thanks partly to an infamous alcohol-fueled pre-awards reception — in a celebration of the best in non-studio moviemaking.

The anything-goes vibe is crucial to the success of the event, says show producer Diana Zahn-Storey. “I’m expecting people to talk about politics, I’m expecting them to talk about the screener ban, and probably the Biskind book,” she says. “We give people free rein, and we’re constantly working to make it as comfortable as possible for everyone to be natural onstage.”

The 19th annual fete will feature aspects familiar and new. On the familiar side, last year’s popular song parodies will be back. But most notably, John Waters is returning to host for the fourth time, which couldn’t please IFC executive producer Debbie DeMontreux more in terms of the cable network’s broadcast coverage.

“He’s a perfect personality for the show,” says DeMontreux. “We couldn’t be more thrilled.”

Waters, who will write his own monologue and sprinkle appearances throughout the luncheon, likes that his return appearances have achieved a kind of comfortable shock value. “They’re used to being startled by me,” he says.

Broadcasting is where the biggest change occurs. IFC will still carry the Spirits live and uninterrupted (at 2 p.m. PST), but with Bravo now owned by NBC, the commercial rebroadcast is trying to assert its independence with a first attempt at a red-carpet arrivals special (to air that same evening at 9 p.m. on both coasts).

Hosted by the sharp-witted Carson Kressley from “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and Debra Wilson of “Mad TV,” the hourlong pre-show acknowledges the escalating popularity of the Spirits.

The number of high-profile names in attendance has increased, from presenters to nominees — including some who are up for Oscars the following day. This year’s honorary chair is Tom Cruise. (His Cruise/Wagner Productions executive produced Spirit Award nominee “Shattered Glass.”)

“We’re expecting (the red- carpet show) to be fun and unpredictable,” says Frances Berwick, Bravo’s senior vice president in charge of programming and production. “It’s a really rich talent pool that now attends this event, and we wanted to be able to hear from some of the people behind these great movies.”

Major network ownership means a bigger promotion budget as well. “There’s a huge advertising campaign on Bravo and NBC,” Zahn-Storey says. “That’s never really happened before.”

Of course, the idea of fashion maven Kressley picking apart the decidedly low-key attire that is Spirits tradition might cause attendees to rethink their wardrobes.

“It would be funny,” says Waters. “But I don’t especially feel like seeing Michael Moore in flared bell-bottoms. I think he has his own look and he does it quite well.”

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