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Film Independent’s Spirit Awards Fly the Flag for Indie Film

As the 2018 awards season marches slowly into its final days, only a handful of honors remain undistributed after some of the most volatile and contentious campaigns in years. Front-runners have come and gone in one major category after the next, as each guild and critics group announced different winners than its predecessors, demolishing expectations even among industry experts and turning a celebration of the cinematic arts into a no-holds-barred brawl for top honors.

But even as other organizations wrestle with the names, numbers and broadcasting merits of different categories, Film Independent sails smoothly toward its Feb. 23 Spirit Awards ceremony with a clearer mandate than ever to reward the effort put into a filmmaker’s vision rather than whatever PR narrative is constructed around it.

“This year the nominations are all over the place across all of the different award shows, but for the Spirit Awards, I feel like it was an incredible year artistically,” says Josh Welsh, president of Film Independent. “When you just look at best feature for our show where you have ‘Eighth Grade,’ ‘First Reformed,’ ‘Leave No Trace,’ ‘Beale Street’ and ‘You Were Never Really Here,’ those are five very different, powerful films. There’s so much artistic variety in the nominations this year and I feel like it’s very strong, definitely independent line-up.”

Although nominees in several acting and technical categories overlap with the Oscars, the 2019 Spirit Awards marks the first time in a decade that not one contender for the top prize received a nomination for best picture. That, along with directing noms for not one but three female filmmakers, offers a sign to Welsh that the organization is fulfilling its core goals.

“We want to make sure that diverse voices are represented at the Spirit Awards, and that fits with Film Independent’s year-round initiatives,” he says. “Even for us, the numbers can be better, but compared to the other award shows, for best director we have Debra Granik, Tamara Jenkins and Lynne Ramsay nominated, and I am very proud of that. Those films absolutely deserved to be nominated in that category in my opinion, and they’re doing great work.”

Welsh suggests that their practice of announcing nominations in mid-November, well ahead of virtually every other organization’s superlatives, allows them to avoid much of the sniping that goes on between rival films. “Those narratives haven’t really been locked in yet,” Welsh says. “Our nominating committees are watching from the summer up into the late fall, but none of those narratives about who’s a front-runner and all that is in place. Nobody has a clue about it and nobody’s worried about it.”

He also indicates that the consistency of their criteria — even in the face of changing models of funding and distribution — has provided a steady foundation for finding films Film Independent considers worthy of recognition.

“Admittedly the word ‘independent’ is very slippery and can mean different things in different contexts,” Welsh says. “But we’re looking at films that have original, provocative subject matter, that have a distinct point of view, that are artistically audacious, and that were made with an economy of means. And I feel like it’s no different now with the big streamers; if your film is independent in how it was made and its artistic ambitions, we’ll consider it regardless of who’s distributing it.”

Film Independent’s 2019 honorary chair Lena Waithe, who created “The Chi” for Showtime, co-created “Boomerang” for BET and produces a number of other projects, echoes Welsh’s sentiments about the organization’s inclusive and encouraging atmosphere.

“It celebrates those on the outside,” Waithe says. “Most indie movies are about people on the outskirts of society and this awards show celebrates them just as much as they celebrate the writers, directors, and actors — all of the scrappy misfits.

“All awards shows on some level are pretentious because art is not a competition and it’s all very superficial, but usually the folks being awarded don’t get a ticket to the Oscars or the Golden Globes, so it’s great to celebrate the folks that worked for little to no money tell a story they felt needed to be told.”

Held in a tent in Santa Monica, Calif. on the afternoon before the Oscars, the Spirit Awards intentionally differ in style and tone from other ceremonies, downplaying black-tie formality and obeying a strict policy of allowing winners to speak as long as they want without the danger of getting played off the stage. It’s an approach that occasionally stresses Welsh out, but he says he welcomes the unpredictability because it reinforces the spirit of the organization and the storytellers being honored.

“I’m the guy in the tent who’s freaking out when somebody goes on too long because you want the show to keep moving,” he says. “I don’t want a bunch of 10-minute acceptance speeches, but I want it to be a show where that might happen. We want people to have fun. You’re on the beach for God’s sake, please relax.”

Most of all, Welsh wants a collegial and celebratory atmosphere, driven by this year’s host Aubrey Plaza, a passionate film buff who won a Spirit Award in 2018 for producing “Ingrid Goes West.”

“When Aubrey’s name was floated, everyone very quickly thought it was a great idea,” he says. “We don’t want someone who’s just going to come in the room and make fun of these little low-budget movies. She’s someone who really is part of it and appreciates it. But she’s also a great performer and she’s extremely funny, and there’s a kind of smart, sophisticated humor that she brings.”

Plaza’s wealth of experience and deadpan insight makes her an ideal candidate to follow the teams of John Mulaney and Nick Kroll, Kate McKinnon and Kumail Nanjiani, or cinephile comedian Patton Oswalt. But Plaza says a big source of inspiration comes from a longtime host whose body of work encapsulates the wild and fearless energy she sees in the nominees and the organization itself.

“John Waters hosted the ceremony for six years when it first began and he kind of embodies that spirit,” she says. “He paved the way for people to take risks and make films that are pushing boundaries.

“They’re not scared of taking risks,” Plaza continues, citing as an example the fact that “they’ve asked me to host. I have zero qualifications. I’ve never hosted anything in my life, and they trust me as an artist to bring this show to fruition successfully. And they’re interested in supporting people that they think are promising, talented and not afraid. I think they just really want to keep the legacy of great independent films going forever.”

With so many elements of the industry in upheaval — including the very definition of “independent” film — Welsh says it’s more important than ever to keep an eye on the bigger picture, not just to avoid fierce competition or petty melodramas but ensure that a community and platform for unique storytellers continues to thrive.

“As the industry changes, I feel much more celebratory of and protective towards the whole ecosystem,” he says. “You want to celebrate the distributors as well, companies that are taking a risk on these films.

“I have sensed that contentiousness this year, and it just seems kind of gross. That part of it kind of doesn’t factor into our show, which I appreciate. You want films that engage the cultural moment that you’re in and you want films that are meaningful, meaty, cultural works, but you also want things that are artistically successful and daring. That’s what I think you see across the Spirit Awards.”

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