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Spirit Awards Keep Independent Streak

As the ceremony eases into its 33rd year, the Film Independent Spirit Awards confront an enviable dilemma. Whereas the indie kudofest, held in a tent on the beach in Santa Monica, once honored films so far outside the Oscars’ orbit that they may as well have been in different star systems, in recent times the two back-to-back awards ceremonies have selected the same best picture winner six out of the past five years, with last year’s most thoroughly independent Spirit winner, “Moonlight,” eventually triumphing the following night at the Dolby Theatre.

This year, the Spirit Awards nominations, which are announced substantially prior to those of the Oscars, have once again provided the Oscars with a road map. “Lady Bird,” “Get Out,” and “Call Me by Your Name” are all included in both best picture races, while the Spirits’ actress and screenplay categories have at least three Oscar overlaps. Few would dispute that the Oscars have been swerving toward the Spirits’ turf much more than vice versa, but does this convergence mean that the Spirits should set their sights further left field?

For Film Independent president Josh Welsh, the shrinking margins between the two ceremonies are hardly a threat — in fact, he sees it as a vindication.

“I think it’s a testament to the strength of independent film,” Welsh says. “I certainly don’t see it as a bad thing. Because even the independent films that get recognized by the Oscars are films that still need bigger audiences. I want MORE people to see ‘Lady Bird.’ Or ‘The Florida Project’ — I think everyone should see that movie. Within our little indie sphere everyone’s seen it and loves it, but when the Oscars are recognizing films like that or ‘Call Me by Your Name,’ it’s important. I’m thrilled by that.”

And aside from a few of the longstanding awards season players in the mix, the Spirit Awards have made plenty of room for the type of boundary-pushing cinema that the Academy is hardly rushing to embrace. “I do think there’s a little less overlap this year,” Welsh says.

Among this year’s multiple Spirit nominees are the Safdie brothers’ grimy “Good Time” (five nominations), Chloe Zhao’s still commercially unreleased “The Rider” (four noms), Kogonada’s debut “Columbus” (four) and Atsuko Hirayanagi’s little-seen Cannes player “Oh Lucy!” (two).

“Obviously I’m biased because I work here, but one of the things I most love about this particular award show is that every year there are films we recognize that a lot of people haven’t had a chance to see, or that haven’t gotten the sort of press or notoriety that some of the other films have,” Welsh  says. “ ‘Oh Lucy!’ is one that just didn’t get the exposure that a ‘Get Out’ or a ‘Lady Bird’ did, and over the last couple months I’ve talked to so many people who have seen the film because it was nominated. That’s really our mission: to build the audience for independent film, and that means celebrating films that aren’t already super well-known with giant P&A budgets behind them.”

Over the years, the Spirit Awards have also developed a reputation for the looseness and irreverence of the show itself. Credit some combination of the beach location, the champagne, or the refusal to cut off acceptance speeches, but the telecast has provided its share of too-hot-for-network-TV moments. (“We’re an awards show that doesn’t take ourselves too seriously, but we do take the films seriously,” Welsh says.)

Last year, however, hosts John Mulaney and Nick Kroll went viral with a comedy bit that aimed for more than just laughs, skewering the gender norms of awards show red carpet discourse by showering praise on the work and artistic legacy of Annette Bening, while offering nothing but cutesy condescension to her “husband,” Warren Beatty. “You look beautiful; who are you wearing?” Mulaney yelled at the onetime “President of Hollywood.”

Kroll and Mulaney are returning this year as hosts, and considering the gruesome revelations of the previous six months, last year’s skewering of film industry sexism feels both prescient and, if anything, entirely too gentle.

“I just re-watched our monologue from last year,” Kroll says, “to just remind myself what we had done, and I saw that part and thought, ‘oh … look at that.’

“I don’t think there’s one textbook way to handle it,” Kroll says about tackling the #MeToo movement as a host. “It’s obviously territory that is very tricky to navigate, to want to be funny but also understand what’s going on in the larger cultural conversation. We’re just gonna do our best to try to thread that needle.”

Welsh also acknowledges the inherent strangeness of running through the awards show liturgy in such traumatic times. “An award show is inherently celebratory, and people are walking carpets and having fun,” he says. “But we’re at this incredibly pivotal moment of change. There’s a lot of anger and pain and frustration, so to have those things going on at the same time is interesting.”

Welsh hopes the ceremony will offer more than meme-able bon mots, as well.

“This year at the Spirit Awards, 30% of our nominees are women, and just slightly under 30% are people of color,” Welsh says. “And to be clear, those numbers should be a lot better — I’m not touting that as some huge accomplishment; the independent film space needs to do better — but they’re markedly better, probably, than what you would see at some other award shows. And that’s really in our DNA at Film Independent, we’re here to make the film industry more inclusive.”

With that in mind, this year the Spirits are bowing a grant, dubbed the Bonnie Award, which is designed to honor a female filmmaker in mid-career. (“The Rider’s” Zhao is the inaugural winner.) The Bonnie joins three other grants that Film Independent disburses at the Spirits, all of which award $25,000 to emerging fiction and nonfiction filmmakers and producers.

“You know, awards are wonderful, everyone likes to be recognized for their work, but independent filmmakers are usually people dealing with small budgets, and actual cash support is very important,” Welsh says. It helps people pay their bills and develop their next films. I’ve talked to so many filmmakers who’ve gotten the grants, where it’s really made the difference to allow them to continue working.

“We’re not a production company, we’re not financing the films, but these grants are a way to provide direct material support to people who need it.”

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