The Independent Spirit Awards always have a party vibe, but this time they really had something to celebrate. Even before Spirit Awards co-host John Mulaney joked that Harvey Weinstein’s would be buried under “XXL Unmarked Grave,” it was clear that the disgraced mogul’s downfall provided an excuse to peer beyond the dark cloud of #MeToo conversations and celebrate movies divorced from the agenda that has held this scene hostage for so long.
In truth, the Spirit Awards started to improve in tandem with Weinstein’s gradual decrease in influence over the last half decade. There was a lot of grousing in the room from industry insiders and filmmakers alike, in both 2013 and 2014, when “The Artist” and “Silver Linings Playbook” won best feature back to back. The Weinstein campaign machine thrust these movies into the center of the conversation so loudly they elbowed out other, less ostentatious works that had no shot at winning Oscars the next day. The Spirit Awards had become a rehearsal lunch.
As The Weinstein Company’s awards game become wobblier, the Spirits started to get their groove back. Though it was dispiriting to see the relatively large-scale “Birdman” win over near-experimental “Boyhood” a year later, nobody could deny that the victory for “Spotlight” in 2016 felt more appropriate to the Spirit Awards than anything made for millions more. The next year, as “Moonlight” took home the top prize — then nabbed best picture in a shocking twist at the end the Sunday’s event — the shift was ever clearer.
The Spirit Awards have long been accused of imitating the Oscars; now, we see that the exact opposite is true. Though best film winner “Get Out” was technically released by Universal, the $4.5 million project was a long-gestating original idea from a new filmmaker whose sensibilities synched up with the desires of a progressive culture (and it was produced outside of the studio’s clutches). A bizarre, outrageous genre hybrid that’s also a probing meditation on black-white relations, best director winner Jordan Peele’s jolt of a movie essentially came out of nowhere and rose to prominence on the basis of its genuine creative ambition, and the waves of people who celebrated it.
That’s the way it’s supposed to work. “What do we mean when we say independent film?” Mulaney said in an opening monologue. “Well, in many ways, we mean movies.”
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The Spirit Awards don’t operate like the Oscars: Unlike the Academy’s exclusive club of industry insiders, anyone willing to pay for Film Independent membership gets a vote, which makes the outcome far more susceptible to aggressive, public-facing campaigns. Weinstein, in between his ghastly crimes, killed at that sort of thing. At its peak, a Weinstein campaign’s optics had the power to silence the competition and absorb all the attention in the room, well beyond awards season: For much of the country, Weinstein and his movies became synonymous with American independent film.
Many 2018 Spirit Awards winners, including Peele (who also won best director), “Lady Bird” screenplay winner Greta Gerwig, and awards-season darling Timothée Chalamet (best actor winner for “Call Me By Your Name”), came to prominence in a post-Weinstein era, when the crass campaign-driven system was the natural order. Their ubiquity reflects the emergence of fresh talent who align with calls for diversity and quality; the Spirits are the awards show that aspires to single out those attributes long-awaited arrival.
Oscars nominees still look a lot like the Spirit Awards — though “The Shape of Water” didn’t make the cut, the three aforementioned winners will walk the Dolby Theater red carpet 24 hours after nabbing their Spirit trophies. But now, the Oscars and the Spirits both present a more genuine impression of the past year. Of course, it would have been nice to see the Spirit Awards find more room for notable Oscar snubs, including “The Florida Project” and “A Ghost Story,” and perhaps the next stage for this awards show as it rights the ship will involve more pressure to allow those more radically unconventional titles to dominate various categories. (The nomination of naturalistic cowboy drama “The Rider,” directed by Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao, who also won the Spirits’ first Bonnie Award for a female director, felt like a step in the right direction.)
Weinstein’s absence will bring more changes to come. As Weinstein’s influence waned, A24 arose as the new standard-bearer. This year, A24 won one prize, for “Lady Bird;” “The Florida Project” team just looked happy to be there. A few feet away, new player NEON celebrated more wins: Two for the Tonya Harding skating dramedy “I, Tonya” (supporting actress Allison Janney and editor Tatiana S. Riegel), and another for best first feature, an unexpected win for the Aubrey Plaza dark comedy “Ingrid Goes West.” Both movies are edgy interrogations into the state of American media in a divisive age. Representatives from NEON, which recently secured new ownership from the ambitious film investment firm 30West, insist that the company’s name must be written in all caps. They want to make some noise.
The Spirit Awards show stumbled here and there. As usual, many in attendance complained that it ran too long, marred by too many commercial breaks and extended bits that drew out the running time. The decision to hand out the first award before the show started, for best cinematography, felt like a downgrading of its artistic merits; it was a snippet of the miscalculations that used to mar every aspect of this ceremony. Andy Sandberg’s dopey variation on Pearl Jam’s “Alive,” focused on how all the younger stars in the room might go over to the dark side of superhero movies, felt like a crass and superficial interpretation of that career move (especially in the year of “Black Panther”). Some people deemed “Mudbound” director Dee Rees’ speech when accepting the Robert Altman Award, where she declared that “‘Mudbound’ is cinema” devoid of the format people watch it on, as self-serving or didactic. But there are worse outcomes for awards season than a few clunky bits, and one talented artist caught up in the moment.
All of which is to say that the awards season ecosystem hasn’t become a utopian, merit-based process devoid of distractions. However, it’s heartening to see the scene less paranoid about a future overflowing with potential, and a new breed of creativity that stands to benefit from the shift.