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Spirit Awards Preview: Inclusion Is Baked Into Indie Film Ceremony

On the eve of the organization’s 35th Spirit Awards ceremony, to air live Feb. 8, Josh Welsh, president of Film Independent, celebrates not only the opportunity to champion projects and their creators after other organizations failed to do so, but also his team’s consistent frequency — and as he describes it, relative ease — in discovering them.

“From the beginning, a key part of Film Independent’s mission has been to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in the film industry,” Welsh tells Variety. “Because we’re doing it all year long and it’s just in everything that we do, it shows up in the Spirit awards as well. And honestly, it’s not hard to do.

“You hear this awful argument out there that if you’re promoting diversity, then you’re compromising quality. And to be frank, that’s just such bullshit. When I look at the films that we have up for best first feature, best director, there are women, there are people of color, and these are the best films of the year.”

In contrast to nominees for the Oscars or Golden Globes, there’s a sense of true cinephilia driving the group’s choices, rather than the lubrication of a well-funded campaign, star wattage or just a “narrative” constructed to shore up a deserving performer or storyteller’s bona fides. Among the Spirit Awards’ best feature nominees “A Hidden Life,” “Clemency,” “The Farewell,” “Marriage Story” and “Uncut Gems,” only Noah Baumbach’s relationship drama “Marriage Story” also received a nom for best picture — or any other Academy Award nominations. The Spirit Awards do have eligibility rules, with the most important setting a $22.5 million cap on a film’s budget, and requiring it to have a qualifying theatrical or festival run. Welsh says Film Independent’s motivations aren’t simply to be different but to take the temperature of the industry as a whole, which means paying attention to lots of different kinds of work.

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“Diversity is not something that comes up at the end of a jury deliberation where it’s tacked on,” he says. “It’s baked into the DNA of the organization. Our committees from the very beginning of the process are thinking about diversity in the broadest possible sense. And it comes back to what’s great about independent film is that it’s so inventive.”

Despite its iconoclastic tendencies, Film Independent maintains a cozier relationship with “known,” mainstream, commercially successful films and filmmakers than one might expect. This year, for example, the Spirit Awards chose Jon M. Chu, director of the upcoming musical “In the Heights,” as the ceremony’s honorary chair, despite that, by his own admission, he’s never made a film that qualifies as “independent.” But Chu maintains a significantly deeper and more intimate connection to Film Independent as a former fellow for the organization’s Project Involve initiative, which gives aspiring filmmakers tools, training and access to hone their storytelling skills.

“It’s about championing original, independent voices, no matter if they’re working in film or television, studio or indie,” Welsh says.

“Jon was in our Project Involve mentorship years ago and has gone on to have such an original, powerful career. It’s one program that we do that I really want more people in the world to learn about, and having him be our honorary chair seems like a good way to do that.”

Chu’s success with films such as “Crazy Rich Asians” has led changes in the industry to tell more stories by and about people of color on a larger canvas. Despite his veteran role among filmmakers still trying to establish a creative and commercial foothold, Chu looks up to the newcomers who pick up his torch and carry it forward with stories that mold the medium’s future.

“We’re actually at the very beginning of how the landscape of cinema is changing,” Chu says. “The new filmmakers that are getting shots now will be legends by the time they’re done. So I love that we get to be the front-row witnesses to history.”

I just had an awakening in the last few years about the kind of stories I want to tell personally,” he adds. “I think a lot of the fear that prevented me from that is not knowing what people are out there to give you a chance to tell your stories, and Film Independent has been nourishing that community for a long time.”

Meanwhile, choosing Aubrey Plaza as host two years running feels especially emblematic of its unique, slightly irreverent approach to the awards-show space.

“When we asked her to host last year, I’ll be candid, we didn’t quite know what she was going to do,” Welsh admits. “But she was so passionately engaged in creating the show last year, so involved and really put herself into it, that when we asked her to come back this year, it was really carte blanche. It’s really the ethos of independent film. You get somebody with a really original, distinct voice and turn them loose, don’t get in their way and see what they do.”

Plaza has spent much of her career defying audience expectations, leap-frogging from one challenge to another while repeatedly creating iconic characters in enduring stories. Perhaps ironically, she views emceeing as less of a chance to disrupt a space familiar for industry back-patting than a way to hearken back to what she perceives as a bygone era of showmanship. “Apparently, hosts are a dying breed, and Ricky Gervais and I are kind of holding down the fort,” Plaza says. “I mean, we can have everyone read off the teleprompter and get on our merry way and see who wins, but what’s fun about that? I think it’s more fun to put on a show and entertain people.”

That said, Plaza acknowledges that the ongoing changes in the industry itself offer plenty of opportunities for her to double down on Film Independent’s embrace of new, different ideas. “The other area that is so rife with material is the state of independent cinema,” she says. “We’ve heard from Scorsese and Spielberg and all these people about how they feel about what’s happening with the financing of these small movies and how they’re being distributed. It’s a free-for-all right now. So I think it’s just a really interesting time to talk about film and talk about what we’re all doing because everyone’s just trying to figure it out.”

Plaza’s feelings about the state of independent film are less diplomatic than Welsh’s, but her bullish attitude about her own place within it embodies the awards show’s attitude, and yeah, its spirit.

“Things are changing very rapidly,” she says. “So I think it’s a good opportunity to take a moment and look around and have everyone go, ‘what are we doing?’

“To have me lead that conversation is hilarious. No one cares what I think, but I’m going to say what I want anyway.”

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