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Guerillas in the midst

Indie players balance grit with glitz as kudos turn 20

TIP SHEET
WHO: Host Samuel L. Jackson, co-chairs Quentin Tarantino and Salma Hayek, and about 1,300 guests
When: Saturday, Feb. 26, 11:30 a.m.
Where: A tent on Santa Monica beach

Every year, the Independent Spirit Awards are forced to prove their independence from studio and corporate forces. The scrutiny has clearly intensified in the last decade, but it plagued the rogue kudo gathering even in the early years.

“Lights, cameras, funereal music, expensive tables — with silverware … ,” Spirits host Buck Henry lamented back in 1991, when the ceremony was held at the Beverly Hills Hotel. “Remember just a few years ago when this once modest event took place in a now justifiably defunct restaurant on an unfashionable section of La Cienega, where dressed in cut-off jeans and tank tops we few — we happy few — gorged on swill and rot gut, and basically ogled each other for a couple of hours before giving out cheap trinkets to celebrate the making of films, many of which cost less than one of Joel Silver’s cuff links.”

Kevin Costner, in the midst of his “Dances With Wolves” roll, was invited as the keynote speaker that year — a decision that sharply divided Independent Feature Project advisory board members. More recently, Tom Cruise was asked to be an honorary chair of the event, which similarly elicited howls from indie film purists.

Plus ça change …, as the French say.

But it’s the big names that have allowed the Spirits to draw more media coverage and sponsorship, which, IFP argues, helps shine the spotlight on films that might never have gotten such treatment otherwise.

The show’s success also allows IFP/Los Angeles to fund numerous programs that help indie filmmakers year round. According to the org’s tax statements, revenues from the Spirits have nearly quadrupled to about $2 million since 1997, when the ceremony was first televised.

“What we were able to do for filmmakers back in 1991 is laughable,” says IFP exec director Dawn Hudson, who joined the org that year. “We are able to help filmmakers so much more now. Our membership dues are just $95. The idea is to remove the barriers to access for filmmakers. And that’s increasingly what the Independent Spirit Awards allow us to do. It helps us fund our labs and Project Involve, our mentorship program, and provide equipment rentals and access to professional services.”

But while the presence of star wattage and corporate logos has its purpose, Hudson says it’s a constant battle defending an awards show that must always strike a delicate balance between staying true to its anti-establishment roots and courting the “evils” that are anathema to the independent world.

Another heated area of debate is the selection of nominated films, which is held under an indie microscope each year. In 1995, IFP’s own board balked at the inclusion of the $20 million-plus “Bullets Over Broadway.” This year, industryites have displayed varying degrees of angst over the $7,000-$16 million budget range repped by the films nominated in the feature category.

“How can you celebrate the best of something when the field is so widely defined?” asks one distrib. “You’ve got studio-financed films vs. something that was made in a garage for five bucks. That said, the ability to elevate the smaller films by the proximity to the larger ones is a nice thing.”

The wide range of budgets in the kudos lineup is a product of the nominations process, says Hudson. “People ask me, ‘Do you have a deliberate mix of smaller and bigger films?’ — but we absolutely have no quotas. It’s just the five best films, period. It is the most thorough and exhaustive process. We’ve all seen about 70 films and talked about them intimately. It allows for those gems to come up, like ‘Baadasssss’ and ‘Primer.’ ”

A 12-15 person nominating committee selects the candidates in each category, and it is up to that group to decide which films are ultimately slotted in what categories as well as the budgetary limits for eligibility.

Explains producer Jeff Kleeman, a longtime participant in the selection process and chair of this year’s nominating body: “Every single year it is left up to the committee to look at the range of budgets in a given year and decide where the sweet spot is. It hit $15 million in the year (1999) of ‘Being John Malkovich,’ which was around that number, and ‘American Beauty,’ which was too big. That number has edged up to about $16 million this year with ‘Sideways.’ ”

Among the 2005 committee members were filmmakers Alan Rudolph, Mark Polish and Tony Bui; thesps Patricia Clarkson and Ron Livingston; and d.p. Nancy Schreiber. For the first time, separate nom committees were formed for the documentary and foreign-language categories, which, respectively, included directors Fenton Bailey and Miguel Arteta.

But whatever the process, industryites concede the kudos do spread the word about indie film. “The Spirit Awards are about your film being recognized and getting out there,” says Samuel L. Jackson, who has won two Spirit statues and is this year’s host. “Everybody is supportive and there’s joy for everyone.”

For indie producer Jeanne Lucas, who is responsible for dreaming up the Independent Spirit Awards two decades ago, it’s all icing at this point. “I can’t believe it has grown into such an incredible event,” she says, adding that, even back in the mid-1980s, she and her fellow IFP-ers were cajoling starry presenters and courting sponsorship. “We would literally crash parties and corner celebrities to help us.”

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