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How to Improve the Independent Spirit Awards: Top Producers Weigh In

How to Improve the Independent Spirit Awards: Top Producers Weigh In

The latest awards season is now officially over — and with it, the 2015 Film Independent Spirit Awards’ stunning decision to honor the higher-budgeted “Birdman” over “Boyhood” for Best Feature. The nonprofit organization’s choice for best picture fell in lockstep with the Academy Awards the following night, a choice that left a bad taste with many in the industry, including Indiewire’s Eric Kohn. 

“Few could doubt that ‘Boyhood’ epitomized the notion of success in American independent film last year,” Kohn wrote in his piece, “Why the Spirit Awards Need to Stop Mimicking the Oscars.” “While ‘Birdman’ — a wildly enjoyable cinematic concoction, no doubt — was a far more refined production populated by celebrities and slick filmmaking trickery.” True indies, he argued, are “left with the stinging reminder that money and exposure still win out.”

“Boyhood,” distributed by IFC Films, was made for around $4 million, while “Birdman” was made for around $16 million — still under the Spirits budget cap for all nominees, which is $20 million. (They made an exception for the $21-million budgeted “The Silver Linings Playbook,” which went on to win Best Feature in 2013.)

On the red carpet at the Oscars, the day after “Boyhood” was defeated at the Spirits, Indiewire asked Jonathan Sehring — the IFC Films president chiefly responsible for financing Richard Linklater’s epic undertaking — about his response to Kohn’s article, which he admitted reading. “I think Rick made the best independent film of all time,” he said, and left it at that.

We pressed the issue with producer David Lancaster, who had a good Spirits Awards experience — he worked on two of the ceremony’s big winners, “Whiplash” and “Nightcrawler,” but was visibly irked when asked about “Boyhood” and his own “Whiplash” losing to a film boasting a budget higher than that of the two projects combined.

“Indie films: I think the definition has been blurred a bit,” he said. Recalling “The Silver Linings Playbook” exception to the rule, Lancaster said, “Define the rules and stick to them. I know it may not be good for the [IFC] broadcast and big stars won’t be there, but it’s great stories we should be selling and telling people about.”

“I think that in order to distinguish ourselves going forward we to need to press that issue and make people understand that these movies have equally as strong stories to tell,” he continued. “I think it’s an exciting time for storytelling. This is an opportunity for people to recognize that a little film can stand up next to the big ones and get recognized and capture their attention.”

It’s important to note that the Spirit Awards do honor films made for less than half a million dollars via their annual John Cassavetes Award. This year, the honor went to the acclaimed comedy “Land Ho!,” co-produced by Mynette Louie. We asked her to weigh in.  

“We have to remember that the Spirit Awards is run by a nonprofit, Film Independent, which has many other programs that support truly indie films and filmmakers,” she stressed in an email. “The Spirit Awards event is their biggest fundraiser and let’s face it, sponsors, press, potential FIND members (FIND uses the awards to increase membership too) and the general public would simply not be interested if there were no big-name celebrities and films. So this is a symbiosis that we must live with.

“However, I do think FIND can capitalize better on the attention generated by the bigger names to shift more of the spotlight to smaller indies. They already do this with the Cassavetes Award, Best First Feature, Best First Screenplay, Someone to Watch, Producers Award and Truer Than Fiction. But I think they should add three awards: Best Film $500K-5M, Best Film $5-10M, and Breakout Actor. I realize this will make the show longer, but it’s worth figuring out!”

Josh Welsh, president of the Spirits’ host organization Film Independent, offered his positive spin on the controversy: “The extent that other organizations now celebrate some of the same films nominated for Spirit Awards speaks to the fact that independent, artist-driven filmmaking is at the heart of our film culture today. Some people might find that overlap surprising and that’s understandable. If other shows recognize these films and inspire audiences to see and support this type of filmmaking, that’s a wonderful thing.”

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READ MORE: Here’s What It’s Like to Cover the Red Carpet at the Oscars

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