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Why the Spirit Awards Need to Stop Mimicking the Oscars

Why the Spirit Awards Need to Stop Mimicking the Oscars

"I feel terrible," said one representative of a major film festival in the minutes after the conclusion of the Film Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday afternoon, where "Birdman" won Best Film. "What do we even say to the ‘Boyhood’ team?"

Presumably, said team would survive: A year ago, nobody would have predicted that Richard Linklater’s fabled "12 year project" could have gone this far. A commercial hit with six Oscar nominations, "Boyhood" didn’t go home empty-handed from the Spirits, with Patricia Arquette nabbing another best supporting actress statue and Linklater winning for best director. However, few could doubt that "Boyhood" epitomized the notion of success in American independent film last year, while "Birdman" — a wildly enjoyable cinematic concoction, no doubt — reflected a far more refined production populated by celebrities and slick filmmaking trickery. "Birdman" is a wry commentary on Hollywood excess, but "Boyhood" illustrates the miraculous possibilities when one escapes it. Its only special effect is time.

READ MORE: The 2015 Independent Spirit Awards Winners

Even if the movie was bound to lose to "Birdman" at the Oscars, it would have been especially apt for Linklater’s achievement to receive a final celebration from the event theoretically designed to celebrate its existence. Linklater had to deal with a family emergency and couldn’t make the ceremony; Ethan Hawke accepted the filmmaker’s prize on his behalf. But it’s no grand leap to view Linklater’s absence in symbolic terms. Year after year, the Spirit Awards highlight several of the most commercial, widely seen movie among the crop of nominees.

While last year that didn’t mean "12 Years of Slave" was undeserving of its prize, it did prevent weirder projects nowhere near the Oscar conversation, including "Frances Ha" and "All is Lost." The two prior years were even worse: "The Artist," a French-produced movie about classic Hollywood, beat out the likes of "Take Shelter" and "Beginners" in 2011, while 2012 found "Silver Linings Playbook" standing in the way of a victory for "Beasts of the Southern Wild," the one best picture nominee that year everyone knew would lose. Each time out, instead of providing one final reminder in the heat of award season that there’s more to the picture beyond the biggest Oscar winners, the Spirits set the stage for them.

Which is not to say that the Saturday awards ceremony, capably organized by Film Independent, completely missed the point. Film Independent goes great lengths to support a world of movies produced without Hollywood support. The Spirits at least offer a venue for discussing such work as an immediate contrast to the Oscars, which embrace deep pockets and the world beholden to them.

If nothing else, the Spirits provide an excuse to discuss a different set of priorities. In the hour or so before the event, hundreds of figures from the independent film community wandered outside the Santa Monica gathering, ordering fruity spiked beverages and snacking on hor d’oeuvres. The ecosystem of producers, programmers, distributors publicists and others who work to bring attention to movies from outside the studio system certainly get the opportunity to toast their accomplishments.

However, they’re left with the stinging reminder that money and exposure still win out. Nominees with no Oscar presence this year, including Ira Sachs’ tender story of an aging gay couple "Love is Strange" and Ana Lily Amirpour’s memorable black-and-white vampire fable "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night," went home empty-handed. They’re still winners for those of us who treasure them. But that’s hardly sufficient comfort.

To some degree, the distinction between independent work and commercial product has grown hazy in ways that the Spirits can’t control. Two years ago, Spirits host Andy Samberg opened with the quasi-sarcastic remark "Fuck Hollywood," but this year’s co-hosts Fred Armisen and Kristen Bell provided a more realistic portrait of the current environment — a tongue-in-cheek song about this year’s nominees. "We’re a little bit indie," they belted out, "and a little bit studio."

But the Spirits could still do more to resist being held hostage by the second half of that statement. Ultimately, the problem comes down to a $20 million budget cap for all nominees. With few exceptions, this has meant that the movie made closest to that ceiling — or, in the case of the $21 million "Silver Linings Playbook," just barely exceeding it and getting an exception — beats out candidates made in the $4 – $5 million range, a figure that encompasses everything from "Beasts" to "Boyhood." If the cap was only slightly lowered — say, to $15 million or even $10 million — it would automatically provide a cleaner definition of the kinds of movies that belong at the center of the ceremony.

Some experts counter that Film Independent has no real imperative to create these limitations given its need to attract celebrities and well-known titles. A few years back, I suggested that Film Independent devise a "Spirit of Indie" category for bigger productions, which would allow them a place at the table without dominating it. Instead, the Spirits continue to play out like a drumroll to the bigger Sunday event, with only modestly-budgeted productions ghettoized in the John Cassavetes Award category (which went to the genial comedy "Land Ho!" this year) providing a real contrast to the limitations of awards season.

"There’s a story out there to be told, not by corporate America, but by you," said Ethan Hawke from the Spirits podium on Saturday, but in a room filled by corporate sponsors at a show beholden to keeping them happy, the irony was visible in every direction. When Paul Thomas Anderson accepted the Robert Altman Prize (announced in advance of the ceremony) for "Inherent Vice," his crack about sponsor American Airlines ("Don’t fly American Airlines, they will fucking lose your luggage") was the truest moment of the day. Thanks to PTA, the event offered a fleeting glimpse of the prankish, anti-authoritarian mentality that allows certain filmmakers to challenge the restrictions of the marketplace. In an ideal world, the Spirits would follow suit.

READ MORE: Will ‘Birdman’/’Boyhood’ Split Repeat at the Oscars?

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Comments

Post Pal

This group has always been this way. Sycophantic and clubby.

@GetReal

Spending any time making a film is "silly," especially as people are starving around the world. If you are a filmmaker, it is a disgrace to make your job as easy on yourself as possible, and that is why (if you must reward any of these people) you should award those who do not. Lol.

ishmael

I could not agree more. Wulfensmith & D. have hit the navoting members. The whole awards season has become an obscene spectacle of narcissisam and vaingloriousness. And it stinks to high heaven. These "artists" applaud, and lionize themselves with dozens and dozens of awards shows, constantly reminded by executives, publicist and accountants actors who fleefully accept their gift bags of $300,000 goodies, all the while spewing this bullshit that they are the anecdot to the comic book moveies because they alone are tewlling the stories of us, everyday North Americans who struggle with the cost of food that has tripled since the salad days of Cheney’s prepubescent Bush’s earth-shattering philosophy that wars, killin and dead brown people are a boon to our socity (by which he means about 80 of his friends).

I left Hollywood because the cognizant dissonace that these schmucks peddle better than a Scientologist wearing a Christain and a coin that is diffficult to be squeezed, lifted and smothered with British -laced crazy glue between lips and ass cracks. I wonder what it felt like for these supposed progressives to once again be squirted from the Thatcher/Regan ass-cracks. But the new and growing sentiment is that Thatchers Hurt locker was delightful metafor of middle-class values that reflect everyday people who are unsung transsexual, fascistic and polulase because his while rewarded actors and embraced with the every growing returns that Blair gifted her when he

jingmei

Good to see the awesome Whiplash’s big success, though it’s an indie, bunch of production companies are behind it.

GetReal

Boyhood is terrible…spending 12 years on a film is silly…make it a documentary and you’ve actually done something worthwhile with all that time

Tad Swann

It’s very simple. As long as the Spirit Awards function as a fundraiser for Film Independent and are on TV, they will never roll back the budget cap. Celebrating indie films is nice, but making money and getting ratings for IFC TV is now the primary purpose of the show.

America Will Burn

It was hardly a crowning achievement in anything except to the dumbest and laziest generation in modern history. Just a movie that did not have the balls to commit to true magic realism. Lol.

Clifford Terry

While ‘Boyhood’ was a very good film it was by no means best picture material, compared to ‘Birdman’ or my pick, ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’. ‘Birdman’ may have been successful in terms of box-office but it is still an independent film and deserving of a Spirit Award and a crowning achievement in storytelling. I don’t think that Linklater was deserving of the best director award either, there were several in the category that were more deserving.

F Hollywood

Birdman is the most overrated movie of the year by far. It is an "avant-garde" movie for people who hate truly avant-garde movies. Just because a movie is "sentimental" like Boyhood does not automatically make it worse, except to generation dumb and lazy. Boyhood took a bigger risk by taking 12 years to make, an investment that could have been a massive waste of time. Hollywood rarely awards the films that take the biggest risks for the greatest payoff (see: Gravity not winning Best Picture) so it would not surprise me if Birdman won Best Picture tonight. Lol.

brijazz

Me again.

Yes, plenty of overlap between the Oscars and the Spirit Awards this year. But let’s look at years past:

2013 – 2 film overlap
2012 – 2 film overlap
2011 – 2 film overlap
2010 – 3 film overlap

The director and acting categories show more deviations.

…and wouldn’t it be hard to copy the Oscars nominations when your own nominations are announced earlier?

delaney

Oh, Eric. "Boyhood", financed by corporate America and all the staying power of a microwave dinner, has no more claim to "independent film" than Birdman does. What "Boyhood" does offer is the Park City earnestness and limousine-liberal naturalism which became the distinguishing feature of Amerindie movies by the mid-90s and has been running on empty ever since. We’re all so important! Our hearts are so virtuous! We can’t write worth a damn and couldn’t come up with an original thought if our lives depended upon it, but they love us in Park City!

brijazz

…. or maybe Oscar voters have simply decided that some of the best films in the last few years are independently-produced?

As for ‘commercial’ titles… please. Birdman, Boyhood et al. were hardly big hits.

You sound like one of those hipster doofi who only like bands until they become popular.

a.d.

Perhaps the festival organizers should take a cue from people like Tilda Swinton and Mark Cousins, who in 2008 founded The Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams, that in ecense, was described as "the anti-film festival", where there were no sponsors, no bigwigs, no prizes,no gifts for guests, no special hotel bookings for the media. It was a true festival for cinema lovers, where everyone who wanted to go could get inside and sit on bean bag chairs and just enjoy the show.It was a true festival, not a cardboard awards ceremony which sadly is what most film festivals have turned into.

Dan Mirvish

Nice piece, Eric! And with all due congrats and respect to the participating filmmakers and organizers, its hard to think of the Spirits as much more than Oscar lite sprinkled with the occasional Sundance redux. Even for those few low budget indies, the awards come so late in their cycle (several of these films were at Sundance 2014) that a win or even a nomination comes too late to help sell or market the films – which of course does the Spirits themselves no good. When was the last time you saw a film trailer or poster touting a film’s Spirit Award noms? Trust me, Birdman and Boyhood’s distribs will tout their Oscar achievements in print. But in the 24 hours between Spirits and Oscars, not a single person will decide to see these films because they just won a Spirit Award. The HFPA has made the Golden Globes timely and relevant, despite have almost no intrinsic credibility. Speaking of which, as long as Spirits has a secret nominating committee, and then a voting group open to anyone who can buy their way in, it will always have a credibility problem, too.

Edward Havens

Eric, this is quite possibly the most backwards "analysis" of the awards season. How do the Spirit Awards mimic the Oscars, when the Spirit Award nominations are announced several weeks before the Oscar nominations are announced? How can the Spirit Awards mimic when their awards are given before the Oscars? Look at the list of Oscar winners over the past twenty years, and you can see a slow but decisive move by the Academy towards the Spirits more and more with each passing year.

You’re a better writer, critic and commentator than this drivel.

Nick

It’s actually beneficial for indie film makers if the Spirit Awards generate as much profits,attention,etc. as possible by having the bigger films and actors on their ballots. Film Independent year-round hosts events and gives sponsorships to aspiring film makers trying to get their own projects funded and this is made possible in part due to sponsorship money, which is larger no doubt because Birdman and SLP are represented at these award shows. Winning 6 Spirit Awards as opposed to 2 is not going to have a significant impact on Richard Linklater’s career, but an extra $20,000 for the next Ryan Coogler.

Andrew S

Perhaps the answer is that they limit the films to $10 million and under or something close to that. It’ll definitely present a very different group of nominees.

HoustonRufus

I so agree with this. If the Spirits are just going to be a rehearsal or proxy of the Oscars, what is the point?

D

Eric Kohn didn’t get the memo that the Indie Spirit Awards and Sundance been sold out to Corporate Hollywood. These two indie institutions are a joke now. Where is the no name indie film in the running, in essence the awards are really the small Hollywood film awards, not Independent Spirit Awards. Melvin Van pebbles and John Cassavetes were real indie directors that made indie films, what you have now is a lot of posers who claim to be indie that are really corporate Hollywood. These award shows and film festivals now are just about getting sponsorships to get paid. If you wanted to do a real Independent Awards Show you would create a fund to fund the event from artists themselves and leave sponsorships out of it period because once they get involved, it turns into a watered down event.

Luke Wulfensmith

I’m with Eric. I really liked Birdman, but Boyhood would’ve recieved my vote and I’m tired of the spirits going for the most commercial/least indie movies of the bunch. I am a little bummed that Birdman will probably win best picture tonight, but it’s still awesome that Boyhood made it this far.

Bruce Oothout

If the award is called "The Independent Spirit Award" then isn’t "Boyhood" a no brainer?

Someone

I have had the opportunity to read several of your articles regarding the Oscars, and i can’t help but notice your unconditional, self-destructive love for Boyhood. Each time you rave at Boyhood’s epicness or technical achievements, you discredit Birdman by mentioning simply how wild it was, not allowing any further much-deserved appraisal that ranges from Cinematography to the choreographed long shots. It’s understandable that Boyhood is the most sentimental of the two and you might feel inclined towards it. But do understand that they are both completely different movies that represent filmmaking as a miraculous art form. They are both masterpieces in their own respects and both deserve any meaningless award they might receive. Your issue here is with Independent Spirits. These guys have rules set by people with more credentials than you on the matter of indie filmmaking, and they must follow those rules. While Boyhood represents a "pure" Indie Moive, Birdman is the rare, dying case of the Middle Class movie. These kind of movies get made less often than true Indies. Anyway, I’m going to stop right here and now. Partly, because I feel that you won’t read this and partly because I’m 18 years old and have certainly got more interesting things to do than to comment online articles. But they are good articles, mind you. I just hope you stop with your bias and sentimentality towards Boyhood. Thanks.

-Sincerely, yet quite reluctant,
Fellow Human

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