Smaller films get chance at spotlight

Few major kudo shows allow for the kind of spectacles enjoyed at the Spirit Awards.

Keanu Reeves arrived on a motorcycle in 1999. Hilary Swank has rolled in on a bike. During the show, you’ll always find nominees sneaking cigarettes — or, one year, ice cream sundaes provided by a sponsor — outside the tent.

The show itself is freewheeling, allowing for rowdy, run-on speeches and the occasional F-bomb.

There are even sing-alongs.

When the indie film ceremony gets a one-day jump on the Oscars tomorrow, it is likely to again serve up a mix of willfully relaxed attire, cheeky dialogue and backstage shenanigans.

Selected by committees and announced in late November, the Spirit Awards nominations also get about a 1½-month head start on the Oscar noms.

The result this year yielded moderate overlap with the Academy’s selections: “Juno” is the only film to vie for the big prize in both kudos shows. Cate Blanchett is the sole thesp to also be nominated for the same film at the Oscars (supporting for “I’m Not There”). Philip Seymour Hoffman, in contrast, will be attending both shows — but in the case of the Spirits for his lead role in “The Savages” and the Oscars for his supporting part in “Charlie Wilson’s War.”

This allows for lesser-known indies to vie in categories such as male lead (where Pedro Castaneda represents “August Evening”) and supporting (“Great World of Sound’s” Kene Holliday). It also allowed for Ang Lee’s Chinese-language “Lust, Caution” to receive three nominations.

Qualifying films must fall under some specific “indie” guidelines. The Spirits’ rules call for “a uniqueness of vision; original, provocative subject matter; economy of means; and a percentage of financing from independent sources.”

A budget ceiling of $20 million in addition to other financial guidelines ruled out multi-Oscar nominees such as “There Will Be Blood” and “No Country for Old Men,” which otherwise may have qualified under the creative parameters.

IFC Films topper Jonathan Sehring says the Spirit Awards in recent years have been “inclusive — they’re not just focused on studio specialty division stuff.”

But while IFC has three nominations, including one in the feature category (“Paranoid Park”), the distributors leading the nominations are still the majors’ specialty arms. Fox Searchlight notched up the most noms with 11, followed by Focus Features, Miramax and Paramount Vantage, each with five. (Born-again indie the Weinstein Co. also scored five.)

Still, some indies that got love from the Academy were completely shut out of the Spirits. In particular, “Away From Her” and “Lars and the Real Girl” didn’t make the cut.

But when the initial round of nominations is made by committee, it’s much easier for films to fall by the wayside when a few strong voices can champion some films and rule out others.

Bingham Ray, who has served on several Spirit nominating committees and whose company Sidney Kimmel Entertainment backed “Lars,” says, “When you have a group of people on a nominating committee — and there could be as many as 19 people — some films resonate deeply and some are a real fight.”

Ray jokes that he sparred with feature nominating committee member Larry Gross when he spied him at Sundance in January, but claims to hold no grudge.

Ray chaired the foreign language committee for this year’s Spirit Awards and takes some pride in the selections they made. “It was a very intimate process,” he says. “Everyone on the committee had a lot of passion.”

Films that notoriously didn’t make the Academy’s foreign final five — most notably Palme d’Or winner “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” and “Persepolis” — are invited to the indie kudo show. Some that made it into the Spirits’ foreign film category weren’t eligible for the Oscars, including English-language Irish film “Once” and French-made “Lady Chatterley,” which was not the official Gallic submission (“Persepolis” was).

“Our rules are confusing to people because they’re not like the Academy’s,” says Dawn Hudson, exec director of Film Independent, the org behind the Spirits. A film such as “Once” made the cut because it was foreign-made with primarily non-U.S. creatives.

For a foreign-language film to be considered in other Spirit categories, two out of three creatives must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents, Hudson says. “A lot of international films qualify as American indies every year, but this year it was even more so. We embrace that universal, global view. There’s no penalty for that. Julian Schnabel making a film in French: Great!”

Schnabel’s France-set “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” was made for about $10 million, so it qualified under the Spirits’ financial rules and scored four noms. Multi-Oscar nominee “La Vie en rose,” however, didn’t qualify at all because of its larger budget.

Another area where the Spirit Awards got a jump on the Oscars was in securing an early WGA waiver for the ceremony. Film Independent and the producers got the go-ahead before the strike started for both the show writers and the clips to be used.

“We couldn’t afford not to know,” Hudson says. “Producers Diana Zahn-Storey and John Hamilton began speaking to the WGA very, very early. We go by that indie film rule: You don’t have money, but you have time.”

23rd annual Spirit Awards
When: Saturday; lunch at 12:30 p.m., show at 2 p.m. PT live on IFC; 10 p.m. on AMC
Where: In a tent on Santa Monica Beach at Barnard Way
Who: Honorary chair Javier Bardem; presenters include Alan Arkin, Maria Bello, Patricia Clarkson, Forest Whitaker and Tom Wilkinson; 1,400 guests

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