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Film Independent Spirit Awards Hit 30 With Irreverence Intact

In honor of the Film Independent Spirit Awards’ 30th year, the show will be broadcast live from its Santa Monica tent on IFC. If history is any indication, there are sure to be a few surprising moments — and there’s already been a big one for the show’s co-host, Kristen Bell.

“You might be shocked by this, but no one told me it would be airing live when I was offered the job,” says Bell, who’s been busy taking care of her second daughter, born just two months before the ceremony. “As long as she doesn’t want to breastfeed, it’ll be a nice change of pace.”

Even if Bell ends up breastfeeding next to co-host Fred Armisen, the crowd of 1,350 might not bat an eye. It would be in keeping with the show’s anarchic, irreverent and frequently profane hosts, presenters and winners. (The latter aren’t constrained by time limits, either, as memorably proved by Mickey Rourke’s wild six-minute speech in 2009 and Ally Sheedy’s epic 10-minute stand a decade earlier.)

Those are a few key elements that make the Spirits unique, and one of the few throughlines from the Spirits’ first small ceremony as the Findie (Friends of Independents) Awards, launched by Jeanne Lucas and IFP/West (now the nonprofit Film Independent) at the 385 North restaurant on La Cienega. It moved to the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the Beverly Hills Hotel and Raleigh Studios before landing in its current Cirque du Soleil-style tent in 1993.

Today the Spirits are just one among many televised honors, from the SAG Awards to the Critics’ Choice. “The other night, there was a show I hadn’t heard of before from AARP,” says Film Independent prexy Josh Welsh. (The Feb. 2 Movies for Grownups Awards Gala will air as a syndicated special just before the Oscars.)

The increasingly common denominator between the Spirits and other kudocasts — even the AARP’s — is the growing presence of independent film. And while the Spirits have typically been held the Saturday before the Academy Awards to bring in talent, the Oscars now allowing as many as 10 best picture nominees has created an unheard-of overlap of talent, making the Spirits seem like a fun-house mirror version of it.

“The film landscape is so different from 15 or 20 years ago,” Welsh says. “Studios make a lot fewer films, and their tentpoles and franchise films typically don’t get that much play during awards season. If you’re looking for films that display bold, artistic ambition, they’re coming from the independent sector. That’s why you’re seeing a crossover between the Spirits and other award shows.

“But I think the Spirit awards are still quite different,” he adds. “We’re still the award show of discovery, with a focus on new, emerging talent.” Welsh cites the introduction of categories like best first feature in 1987 (won by Spike Lee for “She’s Gotta Have It”), first screenplay in 1996 (Paul Auster for “Smoke”) and the John Cassavetes Award for the feature under $500,000 in 2001 (“Chuck & Buck”).

And unlike most other honors, the Spirits can give national exposure to truly unknown talents, with its often obscure nominees and three cash grant prizes: the Producers Award, the Truer Than Fiction Award and the Someone to Watch Award. Marc Forster won the latter “before anyone really knew who he was,” Welsh notes.

At this year’s awards, exec produced by vet Joel Gallen, Welsh says viewers can expect appearances by past nominees and winners, while Bell says she’ll likely sing with the similarly “musically inclined” Armisen. But she’s keeping her expectations realistic.

“Last year, there was a gigantic wind storm and the tent almost collapsed, so if the tent is still standing at the end of the evening, I will consider it a success.”

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