Honors return focus on independent artistry
After more than two decades of honoring independent film, the rowdy Spirit Awards remain the other hot ticket of Oscar weekend.The Saturday afternoon bash, held oceanside in a tent on a Santa Monica beach parking lot, is the casual cousin to the Academy’s serious Sunday soiree. “It’s fun because it’s informal and it’s people you like to be with,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy Michael Barker about the indie show. His company has a staggering 18 noms this year. “I remember Robert Altman loved the Spirit Awards,” Barker adds. “I think he liked it because they nominated pictures that somehow slipped by other orgs and awards-givers. He was there with ‘Cookie’s Fortune’ one year and was just happy to be there with that film; he was proud of it. I remember thinking they were smart for nominating it.” “Cookie’s Fortune’s” three Spirit Awards noms in 2000 were the film’s only major honors that year, but it wasn’t a surprising call for the indie kudo event, which consistently nominates an eclectic and often overlooked group of films. This year, another wide array of American independent cinema is lifted into the limelight. Part of the reason the Spirit noms are so diverse — and perhaps, to some, obscure — is that they’re shaped by eligibility rules including “uniqueness of vision” and “an economy of means” (budgets under $20 million), plus the films must have shown in commercial theaters in 2008 or at one of these six North American festivals: Los Angeles, New Directors/New Films, New York, Sundance, Telluride and Toronto. Additionally, Spirit nominations are decided by three blue ribbon committees, not a general voting body. The winners are then voted on by members of indie orgs Film Independent, which also hosts the Spirits, and IFP. Up for the top prize this year are “Ballast,” “Frozen River,” “Rachel Getting Married,” “Wendy and Lucy” and “The Wrestler.” “The great thing is that, in the last couple of years, the nominations committee has taken back independent film, recognizing true independent film versus going for big-budget glitzy specialty productions,” says IFC Entertainment prexy Jonathan Sehring, whose company has the second-highest number of nominations this year with 11. But that doesn’t mean the awards are any less glamorous. “They still get the star power to turn out for it,” Sehring adds. “You’ll have Mickey Rourke in the room … and you’ll have (“Medicine for Melancholy” helmer) Barry Jenkins in the room.” “I’m proud of the diversity,” says producer Gail Mutrux, who chaired the American narrative feature nominations committee this year. “Actually, I think our nominations are way more interesting than a lot of other awards.” One marked change from the last two editions is that not one of this year’s five Spirit feature nominees coincides with Oscar’s picture noms. Recent years saw the inclusion of such Acad nominees as “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Juno” at the Spirits — and both of these Fox Searchlight entries ended up scooping the top prize at the indie show. This season’s kudo darling “Slumdog Millionaire” — another Searchlight release — was only eligible for the Spirits’ foreign-film category because the majority of the pic’s makers are not Americans. It didn’t make the final five in that category. “The whole process of elimination is very difficult,” says Bingham Ray, foreign-film nominating committee chair, of his overall task this year. He notes there was a wealth of worthy films among the more than 100 foreign-film submissions this year. “We could have had five completely different films (as the nominees) and they’d completely have merit.” Spirit Awards submissions in general reached 275 films this year, compared with 190 five years ago. And almost half of the nominated films were made for less than $1 million. “There’s such great, original storytelling on really small budgets,” says Film Independent’s executive director, Dawn Hudson, who sat on the American narrative nominating committee. Hudson says she’s gratified to see wider recognition for films that participated in Film Independent’s talent labs as well as its Los Angeles Film Festival. Lab alum “Frozen River,” for instance, is nominated for six Spirit Awards and two Academy Awards. And, if some of the Spirit nominees seem completely off the radar, Hudson reiterates that it’s her mandate to raise the awareness of independent films. “Unlike other awards shows, there are films at the Spirit Awards that are not readily available to people. So they get exposure, and that’s our mission — to find films you haven’t already discovered.” TIP SHEET What: 24th Spirit Awards When: Saturday – 11:30 a.m. cocktails; 2 p.m. show Where: In a tent on the beach at Santa Monica Website: spiritawards.com
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