Spirits shift from sand to city

Awards move from beach to nighttime L.A. on IFC

Click here for the full list of nominees.

The Spirit Awards are saying bye-bye to the beach and heading for the concrete jungle of downtown.

The kudos switch also entails a move to a Friday nighttime ceremony.

It’s a bit of a shake-up for some indie industryites who’ve long enjoyed the Spirits’ laid-back Saturday afternoon vibe in Santa Monica. The sunny, oceanside event was a chance to catch up with old friends in a relaxed atmosphere before the more stress-filled Oscars the following day.

“I’ll miss the beach,” says Focus Features topper and frequent nominee James Schamus, “but I think many of my peers will appreciate that the vodka will now be poured after 6 p.m.!”

But at least one thing will remain the same. The ceremony still takes place in a tented venue — a permanent event space atop L.A. Live’s parking lot that accommodates 178 more seated guests than the old white tent. As organizers like to explain it: “Same tent, different view.”

Before moving into the Santa Monica tent in 1990s, the ceremony was a somewhat ad hoc deal, at times being held at a restaurant on La Cienega. It’s now a full-blown, televised-live show, preceded by a long walk down an arrivals carpet that’s lined with press from around the globe.

This year’s moves were encouraged by cabler IFC, on which the ceremony airs live and uncut starting at 8 p.m. PST. “We worked with Film Independent to approach this from the broadcast perspective,” explains IFC exec VP and general manager Jennifer Caserta. “We suggested taking this show to where our audience wants to see it — our primetime is latenights and weekends — and still do it live.”

Film Independent exec director Dawn Hudson adds, “We thought, ‘Let’s see if we can get more people to actually tune in and fulfill our mission that way, of getting the word out about these films.’ ”

Hudson says she didn’t want the event to start feeling predictable and that the 25th anniversary of the Spirit Awards this year seemed like a perfect time to act. She also points out that the shaky distribution landscape for independent film adds another layer to her org’s mission to help boost indies. “I feel more of a sense of urgency this year to get the word out about these films and filmmakers. The awards can put a spotlight on these new directors, new talents and new voices.”

The pool of nominees this year again covers a wide array of indies, from the microbudgeted without distribution to studio-arm-supported films.

“Independent cinema is alive and well,” says American narrative nominating committee chair Stephanie Allain Bray, who saw more than 200 films submitted in that category. “The big problem is distribution, but independent filmmakers are not deterred.”

Qualifying films had to be made with a total budget of $20 million or under, and shown in a commercial theater for one week in 2009 or at one of six key North American film festivals.

And while indie cred counts, the Spirits, says Focus’ Schamus, “will always have to creatively deal with the tension of being both outside and inside the system, with posing a genuine alternative at the same time as asking to be included. That contradiction will never go away, nor should it.”

The kudos also must continue to deal with the push-pull between art and commerce. Sponsor support is key to increasing funding for Film Independent’s year-round programs as well as to draw attention to the films and talent showcased at the Spirits.

For example, in an interesting twist on sponsor/charity/new-venue synergy, actress Taraji P. Henson will kick off the kudos’ blue-carpet arrivals flanked by two hunks pushing LG Kompressor vacuums. They’ll be gobbling up sand in a nod to the old beach-based fete. For the exposure, LG will make a donation to Film Independent’s Project Involve, which aids underrepresented filmmaking talent.

Click here for the full list of nominees.