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Film Independent Spirit Awards Offer a Bold, Inclusive Alternative to the Oscars

Will the 31st Film Independent Spirit Awards ceremony tackle the recent #OscarsSoWhite controversy and the general lack of diversity in Hollywood?

“I don’t know if the Spirit Awards are going to want us to address that so much,” says “Silicon Valley’s” Kumail Nanjiani, who’s co-hosting this year’s Feb. 27 ceremony in Santa Monica with “Saturday Night Live” star Kate McKinnon.

And though her new “Ghostbusters” character ain’t afraid of no ghosts, McKinnon seemed a bit cautious when asked if they’ll cover the topic. “We haven’t solidified it yet. … Gosh, I’m just a comedian, and I just hope we put on an entertaining show that’s a little outside the box,” she says.

“I don’t really know if they’re terrified of the Oscars, (but) we don’t have an opening musical number called ‘F— the Oscars’ or anything,” Nanjiani offers with a laugh. “You know what? Maybe we just gave ourselves a great idea.”

If this year’s Spirits ceremony isn’t as militant as the arena it honors, the diversity there will speak for itself — starting with the openly gay McKinnon and the Pakistani-American Nanjiani. “Representation is important, and I think it changes people’s minds to simply see different types of people onscreen without them even knowing it,” McKinnon says.

And the 2016 best feature nominees are a veritable rainbow coalition, with the lesbian drama “Carol,” Africa-set “Beasts of No Nation” and transgender dramedy “Tangerine” up against the Oscar best picture nominee “Spotlight” and best animated feature contender “Anomalisa.” (If there was any doubt about the Spirits’ commitment to diversity, the latter features Claymation leads, long overlooked even in the animation world).

“Of the 44 films nominated this year, about 27% were directed by women and 34% were directed by filmmakers of color,” notes Film Independent prexy Josh Welsh. “I think that reflects our organization and the independent sector. There’s a lot of new talent and a breadth of voices from all parts of our culture, and that’s what we’re committed to working towards all year-round.”

The lineup offers a stark contrast to this year’s Oscars. Film Independent says that 48% of the nominees are from projects written, produced or directed by filmmakers of color and 77% are from projects with a woman in one of those roles. While the identities of nominating committee members remain private, Welsh says 55% of his board of directors (who appoint them) are from ethnic or LGBT backgrounds, and 48% are women. Film Independent members (the bulk of Spirits voters) are 48.8% female, and among those who disclosed their personal backgrounds, 33% belong to minority groups.

Given that AMPAS membership is 93% white and 72% male, according to a 2013 Los Angeles Times study, one could jump to conclusions about the difference between the Oscar and Spirit contenders … yet just a year ago, the two ceremonies shared a best pic winner (“Birdman”) and four of the Spirit’s five best pic nominees. Welsh suggests a more positive (and equally plausible) take on the differences this year.

“We have an unofficial budget cap of $20 million — the committees can go above that if they see fit — but there are clearly great films with enormous budgets in some of the other shows that we would never recognize,” he says, alluding to “The Revenant,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Martian” and other studio fare. “Of course we’re not going to nominate a $100 million movie. And there are a lot of different awards all focusing on slightly different films this year.”

Even if there are valid reasons not to court controversy (“If anything, it’ll be more a celebration of diversity than a condemnation of lack of it,” Nanjiani says), the diverse nominees could have a lot to say on the live IFC cablecast. And, as McKinnon notes, “It’s during the day, in Santa Monica on the beach, in a tent, there’s liquor, anything can happen at the Spirit Awards. You can expect all kinds of kookiness.”

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