Spirit Awards: Our movies, ourselves

Indie films offer freedom for femme filmmakers

Last year, Kathryn Bigelow made history by becoming the first woman to win the Academy Award for directing. But at the Spirit Awards, such women-centric laurels are business as usual.

The Spirits scooped Oscar by nearly two decades when Martha Coolidge won the helming prize for “Rambling Rose” in 1991; since then, Sofia Coppola and Valerie Faris have also taken the indie gold.

This year, the Spirits once again show off their grrrl power with a raft of femme-helmed nominated pics, which represent some 40% of the honors’ major accolades. “It’s still not something to brag about, because it’s not even half,” acknowledges Film Independent exec director Dawn Hudson, “but it’s still consistently higher than the mainstream awards.”

Indeed, Debra Granik (“Winter’s Bone”) and Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids Are All Right”) are both nommed for directing Spirits, but at the Oscars, women have been shut out of the category. The future also looks bright for women in the indie sector, with females representing two of the Spirits’ first feature nominees (Tanya Hamilton and Lena Dunham) and two of this year’s three emerging Piaget producers (In-Ah Lee and Adele Romanski).

“Independent film is still the world in which women can find the space to tell complex stories that wouldn’t be funded by a studio,” says “Tiny Furniture” writer-director Dunham. “And I think women, especially women in this male-dominated industry, have decidedly complex stories to tell.”

While it may be simplistic or wrongheaded to define a “female aesthetic,” looking at the Spirit films that have been driven by female, or male/female creative teams — “Winter’s Bone,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “Please Give,” “Obselidia,” “Greenberg” and “The Exploding Girl” — it’s not hard to see the sort of complexity, intimacy and subtlety that Dunham is talking about. Nor is it a surprise that these are the kinds of films that the studios have largely abandoned. “Hollywood is a huge industry,” says Granik. “No one wants to give up power. No one wants to stop making comedies with white people who have lots of vehicles. So to say they’re sexist, classist or racist doesn’t apply. They’re just protecting material that has proven to be popular.”

In contrast to the studios, Granik believes that the indie sphere is hugely supportive in cultivating women and minority directors, specifically citing indie orgs like Sundance, IFP and Film Independent. “I think they’ve done a lot to bring different people into the tent,” she says.

Best feature nominated producer Anna Rosellini (“Winter’s Bone”) also believes that women are simply not looked at much differently than men in the indie arena. “We can choose who we want to work with, and our gender doesn’t appear to be an issue,” she says.

Hudson says the indie industry’s potentially preferential treatment for women isn’t “gender-specific so much as auteur-specific; it’s a place where you can make your specific film in a much less formulaic way.” She cites multiple Spirit nominee Nicole Holofcener (“Please Give”) as example. “She makes films her way, and she waits until she can get the budget for the films she wants to make.” (“I’d rather have $3 million and my ending than $10 million and not my ending,” Holofcener has said.)

So if the wider industry may not yet be as gender-blind, at least there’s one place female filmmakers can still go — as Granik calls it, “the protective bosom of the independent film world.”


“127 Hours” – Christian Colson, Dann Boyle, John Smithson
“Black Swan” – Mike Medavoy, Arnold Messer, Brian Oliver, Scott Franklin
“Greenberg” – Scott Rudin, Jennifer Jason Leigh
“The Kids Are All Right” – Gary Gilbert, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, Celine Rattray, Jordan Horowitz, Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Philippe Hellman
“Winter’s Bone” – Alix Madigan-Yorkin, Anne Rosellini

Annette Bening – “The Kids Are All Right”
Greta Gerwig – “Greenberg”
Nicole Kidman – “Rabbit Hole”
Jennifer Lawrence – “Winter’s Bone”
Natalie Portman – “Black Swan”
Michelle Williams – “Blue Valentine

Ronald Bronstein – “Daddy Longlegs”
Aaron Eckhart – “Rabbit Hole”
James Franco – “127 Hours”
John C. Reilly – “Cyrus”
Ben Stiller – “Greenberg”

Darren Aronofsky – “Black Swan”
Danny Boyle – “127 Hours”
Lisa Cholodenko – “The Kids Are All Right”
Debra Granik – “Winter’s Bone”
John Cameron Mitchell – “Rabbit Hole”

“Everything Strange And New” – Frazer Bradshaw, Laura Techera Francia, A.D. Liano
“Get Low” – Aaron Schneider, Dean Zanuck, David Gundlach
“The Last Exorcism” – Daniel Stamm , Eric Newman , Eli Roth, Marc Abraham, Thomas A. Bliss
Night Catches Us” – Tanya Hamilton, Ronald Simons, Sean Costello, Jason Orans
“Tiny Furniture” – Lena Dunham, Kyle Martin, Alicia Van Couvering

More on the Spirit Awards
Our movies, ourselves | Someone to Watch Award: Mike Ott | Producers Award: Anish Savjani | Truer Than Fiction Award: Jeff Malmberg | The Runner-ups