12 Years a Slave Gotham Audience

Tuesday morning’s announcement of Indie Spirit Award nominations brought the annual head-scratching over some selections, in terms of eligibility. Many films were disqualified because of budget or nationality of the key contributors. On the flip side, pundits are sometimes flummoxed at the inclusion of studio films that don’t seem like indies.

“12 Years a Slave,” this year’s top Spirit Award nominee with seven bids, apparently made Film Independent’s $20 million-and-under eligibility mandate, despite the film’s budget having been previously reported at $21 million or even $22 million. Fox Searchlight says the number falls “under $20 million.”

Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” starring Cate Blanchett, also cuts it close this year with a reported budget of $18 million.

Spirit Awards Analysis: ‘All Is Lost,’ ‘Fruitvale’ Join Must-See List

Meanwhile, a few of this year’s indie critical darlings, including “Short Term 12″ and “Before Midnight,” were bumped from the best film category in favor of the Coen brothers’ folk drama “Inside Llewyn Davis” and Robert Redford starrer “All Is Lost.” Other similarly indie-spirited movies from major distributors, such as Spike Jonze’s “Her” and “Out of the Furnace,” were deemed ineligible.

The nominations inspire an annual questioning of the definition of “indie” and the lines of its qualifications.

Last year, the Weinstein Company’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” with a $22 million budget, faced similar scrutiny when its was declared eligible for the Spirit Awards, drawing five nominations, including bids for Bradley Cooper and “Hunger Games” star Jennifer Lawrence.

So how does Film Independent determine which film is qualified?

Here’s a quick rundown of their requirements:

  • In 2006, the board determined a budget ceiling of $20 million, including post work. (Before that, budgets were often in the $16 million-$18 million area but went as high as $22 million.) Any film budgeted over $15 million needs to submit top sheets from the film’s final cost report.
  • The org does not define “independent” solely on financial terms. A studio film can be considered an indie “if the subject matter is original and provocative,” according to Film Independent. In terms of financing, the org looks for “economy of means” and “percentage of financing from independent sources.”
  • The film needs to be American, which means it has a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in at least two of the following categories: director, writer or producer. For example, Saudi Arabia’s Oscar entry “Wadjda,” with a Spirit nom for best first feature, is an American co-production, while the directors of Danish-British-Norwegian docu “The Act of Killing” are U.S. citizens.
  • Alternately, a film can be considered American if it is set primarily in the U.S. and at least 70% financed by U.S.-based companies. Everything else is considered international.
  • To be eligible, a film needs a commercial run in the calendar year or to have screened in one of the org’s six designated festivals: Los Angeles Film Fest, New Directors/New Films, New York Fest, Sundance, Telluride or Toronto.
  • Nominations for the Spirit Awards are made by committees for three areas: American narrative films, international narratives and documentaries. The committees include filmmakers (directors, producers, actors, etc.), film programmers and critics, past nominees and members of the org’s board of directors. The final awards are voted on by the entire Film Independent membership. This year, there were 43 committee members looking at 325 entries.

Indie or Not, Money (and Entertainment) Talks

At the end of the day, the Independent Spirit Awards operate like most other major awards shows and benefit from having bigger films and stars, more sponsors, bigger ratings and let’s be honest — a more entertaining show. This year’s host is Patton Oswalt; previous hosts include Seth Rogen, Andy Samburg and Joel McHale. So the annual gala helps draw attention to the real independent films — particularly those in the First Film categories — while giving the audience the Brad Pitts and Jennifer Lawrences they want to see.

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