Wide range of indies compete in Spirit

Show mixes high-profile independents with low B.O. pix

For years, the Spirit Awards have played Oscar’s poor cousin. The kudos show is held in a tent and not a swanky purpose-built theater, the dress code is “anything goes,” and it’s a lunchtime affair.

Thankfully, none of that has changed. Nor has the eclectic mix of nominees.

A few ways you’ll know you’re at the Indie Spirits and not the Academy Awards: None of the female lead and supporting categories include actresses who are also vying for an Oscar on Sunday. Actor nominee Forest Whitaker is up for a film called “American Gun,” not “The Last King of Scotland.” And all five producers of “Little Miss Sunshine” will be able to go to the podium if they win tomorrow.

Oh, and you won’t have to wait for a seat-filler before you’re allowed to get up.

The presence of more high-profile indies at the Spirits, including “Sunshine” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” is leavened with big doses of films that didn’t necessarily do boffo numbers — or any theatrical biz, for that matter. “American Gun,” “The Dead Girl,” “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” and “Man Push Cart” — each with three noms — barely saw the inside of a theater. Many others never made it into a commercial cinema or are still working on it (see story, page B4.)

In a process that allows more obscure titles to rise to the surface, Film Independent, the org behind the kudos, chooses the nominees by committee. Three groups made up of filmmakers, executives and critics make their selections from American narratives, foreign films and documentaries. This year, more than 250 features released commercially — or shown at one of six North American festivals — were considered for 13 categories. Film Independent’s 6,000 members vote on the winners, who will be announced at the ceremony Saturday.

“Our mandate hasn’t changed from year to year or from the beginning, actually,” says Film Independent’s exec director Dawn Hudson. “It was about recognizing the best in independent film in 2006 across the spectrum.

“If the committee had nominated all high-profile, high-budget films, it wouldn’t have done its job. It’s a very organic process in terms of what comes to the top of everyone’s list. It’s usually a combination of films, without us having to institutionalize and dictate (what the nominations should look like).”

The process makes for a broad range of potential nominees, as this year shows.

“I’m always amused, sometimes confused, and even mystified about those names that pop up,” says ThinkFilm topper Mark Urman, whose company has six nominations. “There’s an interesting democracy to it all and a bit of randomness that’s comforting because you could be the beneficiary of it.”

Urman says he’s done with making judgments about the selection based on budget.

He remembers speaking out a couple of years ago when ThinkFilm’s “Primer,” made for $8,000, was nominated for feature along with studio specialty arm productions such as “Sideways.” He subsequently got calls from producer friends who had worked on higher-budget films. They explained how they, too, had endured years of struggle and constant penny-pinching to get their films made.

“It gave me pause. Everyone struggles,” he says. “We had better stop fixating on ‘They had better craft services than we did.’ I’d be much more concerned if crappy films got nominated with the wrong cinematic values.”

“There are fewer troubling question-mark nominations than there have been in the past,” he says of this year’s selection. “But I’ll preface that with: Some of those troubling question marks do represent someone’s idea of an independent film.”

“Is it fair that ‘Sideways’ and ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and the bigger movies competed with the truly independent ones? Yeah, because they’re independent because nobody wanted to make them,” reminds First Look Pictures prexy Ruth Vitale, whose company has six noms this year.

Vitale notes the nominated pictures this year “were done on relative shoestrings.”

Perhaps more budgetary parity means less uproar. “For whatever reason this year, I received a lot of positive feedback about the nominations; they seemed truer to our roots,” says Hudson, noting half the films up for Spirit Awards were made for less than $1 million.

But now it seems the focus has switched from disparities in production budgets to comparing marketing budgets.

It’s an issue that underlines the general state of the indie business. “Studios have really gotten behind their arthouse divisions, and they’re almost spending studio dollars on specialty releases,” says Vitale, adding that her company can’t throw $10 million-$15 million behind a release to get it in theaters. “Movies don’t break out unless somebody spends an extraordinary amount of money.”

Meanwhile, good reviews and big fest laurels don’t necessarily translate into theatrical deals anymore. “Two years ago, a film like (Ken Loach’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner) ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’ would have been picked up for distribution,” says Jonathan Sehring, head of IFC Films, which will take the pic out via its First Take label in the U.S. next month. “The market has changed so much since then. It’s left a lot of movies and filmmakers behind.”

“The margin is so slim on these films, the smaller companies don’t have the weight to get them out there or the money to keep them out there,” adds Sehring, who says the First Take label was specifically designed to address these issues by pairing a strategic theatrical rollout on smaller titles with video-on-demand options.

But, as Urman reminds, no matter what the delivery platform, it’s still about awareness, which brings it back to marketing dollars.

“If I can generate revenue from a film, I don’t care how it’s being consumed. But you have to be trafficking in something people want to see. The burden is still on us to keep on thinking of ways by which we can create presence.”

Urman believes awards are a big part of that presence. He says his marketing dollars were well spent on “Half Nelson,” a five-time Spirit nominee that’s also up for an actor Oscar for Ryan Gosling.

“What I spent was money, and it involved a lot of zeroes, but it wasn’t backbreaking and it wasn’t vulgar,” he confides. “I felt the temperature of ‘Half Nelson’ change each time it won an award. Eventually it goes into the world on DVD as an Oscar nominee in a major category. It has much better prospects as such than it ever would have as a critically acclaimed low-budget film.”

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