Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Eric Kohn
February 24, 2013 1:54 PM
27 Comments
  • |

The Independent Spirit Awards Are Losing the Indie Quotient. Can They Win It Back?

Andy Samberg at the Independent Spirit Awards.
"Fuck Hollywood," said host Andy Samberg at Saturday's Independent Spirit Awards, a tongue-in-cheek act of defiance that was met with a mixed reaction. The irony, of course, was that this Santa Monica beach gathering brought much of Hollywood together for a ceremony that constantly sends a message antithetical to its name. In the space of the two-and-a-half hour show, independent spirit declares war with Hollywood in a couple of categories where the little guys shine. But at the end of the day, Hollywood usually wins.

While many people reasonably adore "Silver Linings Playbook," David O. Russell's Oscar-nominated romantic comedy, but its domineering presence at the Spirit Awards this year once again sent a confusing message. Attendees watched while Russell ventured to the stage on three occasions, as the movie won Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director and finally Best Film. Jennifer Lawrence's acceptance speech for Best Actress played like a rehearsal for her Oscar one. While not without its charms, in this context "Silver Linings Playbook" became something of a spoil sport: Here was a movie full of stars from an established Hollywood filmmaker who won his first Spirit award 20 years ago.

"Keep the Lights On."
Its triumph may indicate a slight improvement on the process following last year's embarrassing series of wins for "The Artist," a French movie that cleaned up at an event supposedly designed to honor American independent film. But "Silver Linings Playbook" nevertheless steamrolled competition that deserved better. The Best Film category included audacious contenders like Richard Linklater's "Bernie," in which both star Jack Black and Linklater himself took on tonally risky material and delivered a peculiarly charming black comedy. The category also singled out Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom," his best-received movie in years and an affirmation of his stylistic ingenuity. Ira Sachs' powerfully intimate relationship drama "Keep the Lights On" was made on the smallest of budgets among the nominees yet managed to maintain visibility on the raw power of its performances and quietly affecting mood. And then there was "Beasts of the Southern Wild," the underdog story of last year and a seeming shoo-in for Independent Spirit Awards attention that wound up winning only for its cinematography. Elsewhere, "Silver Linings Playbook" continually blocked the way.

The event struggles to walk the line between bottom-line goals and integrity.
As the ceremony came to a close, the director of one of the losing nominees was milling about when a friend put an arm around him and asked, "Are you disappointed?" He shrugged, sighed and nodded. This was an inevitable situation that even Samberg noticed, at one point joking about how the "Keep the Lights On" table was located in the way back of the room.

Once again, the irony cut deep: While those seated far from the front had to watch the proceedings on a large monitor, at a tableful of sponsors located directly beneath the stage, a marketer from a prominent company eagerly snapped photos of Salma Hayek at the table next to him. He couldn't stop staring: On one side of Hayek and her husband was Daniel Radcliffe (Harry-freaking-Potter!) and Bryan Cranston (Walter-freaking-White!); on the other, Jeremy Renner. Seated to his right, wearing a dazzling red suit, sat John Waters, but this particular sponsor had never heard of the guy. "I don't know this world," he said.

This was the epitome of the Independent Spirit Problem, which we will call ISP. Over the years, the Film Independent-sponsored event has been constantly assailed by figures in the indie sector perturbed by its tendency to allow big movies and names to take over the event -- not only its guest list but among the list of winners as well.

The organization isn't blind to the ISP and certainly has a reason to work around it. The Spirits form its biggest fundraising event of the year and in order to draw lucrative sponsorships, they need the glamour that name talent can bring. Still, it struggles to walk the line between bottom-line goals and integrity, alienating the exact facet of the community it's supposed to celebrate. The ISP frustrates many people each year, but it has many potential solutions. Over the course of a post-Spirits evening at various informal gatherings where ISP grousing percolated widely, I heard a lot of ideas. Here's a few ways the Spirits might be able to remove the paint keeping them in the corner.

You might also like:

27 Comments

  • Former Spirit Award Winner | March 1, 2013 10:25 AMReply

    Moonrise Kingdom was surely over $20M and it was on the ballot too. A major revamp of rules and the nominating committee is needed ASAP. I always thought the problem was Dawn Hudson. Film Independent is such a great champion of indie film the rest of the year. Can't you guys please get this right in 2014?!

  • Former Spirit Award Winner | March 1, 2013 10:24 AMReply

    Moonrise Kingdom was surely over $20M and it was on the ballot too. A major revamp of rules and the nominating committee is needed ASAP. I always thought the problem was Dawn Hudson. Film Independent is such a great champion of indie film the rest of the year. Can't you guys please get this right in 2014?!

  • Former Spirit Award Winner | March 1, 2013 10:24 AMReply

    Moonrise Kingdom was surely over $20M and it was on the ballot too. A major revamp of rules and the nominating committee is needed ASAP. I always thought the problem was Dawn Hudson. Film Independent is such a great champion of indie film the rest of the year. Can't you guys please get this right in 2014?!

  • Former Spirit Award Winner | March 1, 2013 10:23 AMReply

    Moonrise Kingdom was surely over $20M and it was on the ballot too. A major revamp of rules and the nominating committee is needed ASAP. I always thought the problem was Dawn Hudson. Film Independent is such a great champion of indie film the rest of the year. Can't you guys please get this right in 2014?!

  • josh | February 26, 2013 4:15 PMReply

    The indie crowd is filled with such snobbs they are all snobs .Silver lining playbook is proof that hollywood does make great movies with great stories.Just because a film is done in a indie market with a smaller budget .Doesnt mean its a better creative film than a studio film a good story is a good story .No matter where it comes from i think as a whole we need to go back to simply making good stories.That way the house will no longer be divided .

  • Khansa | February 26, 2013 12:20 PMReply

    Love the sentiment of this article. Cap however should be significantly less than $20 Million - more like $5 Million.

  • Jordan | February 25, 2013 2:39 PMReply

    Great article Mr. Kohn. Beasts of the Southern Wild was made for this award show and visa versa. It was a missed opportunity by them to give a much needed bump to a true indie film with a lot of potential mainstream appeal.

  • Tony McIntosh | February 25, 2013 12:55 PMReply

    I was there, and had a good time. The highlight for me was Ava Duvernay winning the Cassavettes award. However, I definitely have noticed the "ISP" for a few years now. Bottom line, a $20 million project is not an indie film, much less one made for more. I really liked Silver Linings, but to a paraphrase a friend, how indie is it when it's financed by Miramax, has Bob and Harvey pump boatloads of money into promoting it for awards season and has A-list stars in the cast? It was nominated in all the big categories at the Oscars, and favored in several. Indie?

    As stated I really liked Silver Linings, but honestly Django Unchained was more of an "independent spirited" film than it to me. (bold, you like or you don't like it, and they don't give a shit if you don't like it) I expected Beasts of the Southern Wild to clean up and was truly surprised. Silver Linings got to have it both ways essentially. Shrinking the voting body and the "Spirit of Indie" category are good ideas. Film Independent members made the call in voting and I can't help but wonder how close it was in those major categories.

    I like and appreciate both Hollywood and Indie projects, always have; but if you want to be credible as the independent awards, keep it indie.

  • Mike Newman | February 24, 2013 8:14 PMReply

    This is what Hollywood does. Hollywood is a virus. It seeks out the "next cool thing", takes it over, and destroys its spirit. Look at the film festival circuit, Hollywood has destroyed Sundance, SXSW and numerous other festivals.

  • Sujewa Ekanayake | February 24, 2013 5:30 PMReply

    So maybe:

    4 - Oscars = full on Hollywood w/ some indie
    & or indie type movies,

    3 - Spirt Awards = mostly low budget Hollywood
    w/ some indie connections & qualities, & some real
    indie movies,

    2 - Gotham Awards = mostly indie w/ some low budget Hollywood
    movies

    +

    1 - fully indie = awards at some indie film festivals, where the vast
    majority of the films celebrated are under $1 million
    in budget

    Perhaps that's the current state of things.

    - S

    ::

  • Sujewa Ekanayake | February 24, 2013 5:30 PMReply

    So maybe:

    4 - Oscars = full on Hollywood w/ some indie
    & or indie type movies,

    3 - Spirt Awards = mostly low budget Hollywood
    w/ some indie connections & qualities, & some real
    indie movies,

    2 - Gotham Awards = mostly indie w/ some low budget Hollywood
    movies

    +

    1 - fully indie = awards at some indie film festivals, where the vast
    majority of the films celebrated are under $1 million
    in budget

    Perhaps that's the current state of things.

    - S

    ::

  • Steven Ball | February 24, 2013 4:37 PMReply

    The real elephant in the room was Bruce Willis who personifies Big Hollywood. However I can understand how some people might mistake Heavy Widestein for an elephant.

  • LeonRaymond | February 24, 2013 3:58 PMReply

    SLP'S budget was $21 Million now say you made a real indie at say $500,000 think how many films with great talent using SAG talent you could make for $21 Million

    Now some one stated it and yes they are 100% correct the true INDIE SPIRIT AWARDS ARE THE SXSW FILM FEST!

  • Michael Medeiros | February 24, 2013 3:41 PMReply

    The "ISP" is not unlike the growing "IWP" (IndieWire problem). A cousin to the SAG Awards problem, with SAG slavering over and genuflecting to the stahhz while ignoring it's quite talented body of actors who aren't glitterati. Am I bitter? No, I'm actually just very grateful to be finishing post. -- Michael Medeiros/director/Tiger Lily Road, an independently produced motion picture.

  • Bobby | February 24, 2013 3:44 PM

    Michael! I saw your clips on youtube - funny as hell!

  • F.P. | February 24, 2013 3:37 PMReply

    Someone just needs to say it - the presence of Weinstein Company product is the problem. They comfortably sit on the border of independent and studio, and therefore, dominate here and take the 'indie' slot at the Oscars almost exclusively. The way around them here is to lower the budget cap. Arguably the only truly relevant showcase of low-budget features which doesn't rely on the independent wing of major agencies (hello, Sundance/Toronto/Cannes) is SXSW and the majority of films in competition at SXSW are mostly well under $500K.

    Capping at $20M is a joke, especially when films don't get made at $10M unless they already have a slot at the above agent-driven festivals. If they want to grant exceptions, Film Independent should be able to - CLOUD ATLAS is an independent film, irrespective of its budget - but if they care to honor the independent spirit of films, they should tell TWC to stop using their organization as an outreach of their marketing campaigns, and limits entry to $5M budgets and under. Any true indie producer these days severs limbs and promise first-born children for that much money, so it's not that crazy a number. Otherwise, the assholes like the David O. Russell's of the studio system will continue to tell the Benh Zeitlin's of the indie world to wait their turn, even though BEASTS pisses all over the vastly overrated, vastly overpromoted SLP. When your host's best comments all night were about ever present ads on TV for one of your nominees, you should be embarrassed that it was nominated in the first place.

  • Ted | February 24, 2013 3:14 PMReply

    I generally dislike awards shows. Film is the only art form the community seems to willingly allow to be cheapened to "competition." You'll never see a "Greatest Painting" award. Just think of the absurdity of, say, the 1937 Best Art Awards and the nominees for Best Painting Are: Picasso for Guernica; Amrita Sher-Gil for Bride's Toilet … Every reasonable artist, art critic, and art lover would find that award show absurd. Obviously the Oscars, Independent Spirit Awards, BAFTAs etc. aren't going anywhere, but as film lovers we shouldn't even indulge the idea that these things are anything but commercials. I wouldn't have as much of a problem with the Independent Spirit Awards if they actually used the publicity to promote films that can't get big budget advertising. The ISA aren't about promoting small, independent films. They are about promoting mid-budget, mainstream films with some quarks to them. But this article acts like this is some new thing for the ISA. Look at the past winners for best picture at the ISA: 2010: Black Swan; 2009: Precious; 2008: The Wrestler; 2007: Juno; 2006: Little Miss Sunshine; 2005: Brokeback Mountain; 2004: Sideways … Most of these films I think are even worse than the commercial hackery winning at the Oscars.

  • Linda Nelson | February 24, 2013 2:56 PMReply

    These are not really independent films. SLP had a $21 million dollar budget and I can't even imagine what was spent on the awards campaigns. Just because one of the major studios didn't make it (do they even make any films anymore?) doesn't mean it wasn't made by studio grade talent behind and in front of the camera - people who have already "made it". These people don't embody the concept of the independent spirit. They all survive and thrive throught their relationship with the studio establishment. From the Director to the stars, from the Composer to the crew, SLP can hardly be considered an independent film, just because the studios didn't produce it. The Independent Spirit Awards should be about recognizing new and emerging talent, not just be a dull shadow of the Oscars. Hopefully it can return to it's true mission which is to foster the independent voice. Set an upper limit on the budget and you might see some new voices.

  • jean vigo | February 24, 2013 2:33 PMReply

    The ISPs have become what every award show has become, more about "showbiz" and less about any defined artistic or indie POV.

    Some of the categories are misleading - why wasn't "Beasts Of..." in Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay? It qualifies in those categories. There were lots of these odd omissions.

    At least small, hard fought visions like "Keep The Lights On," "Middle Of Nowhere," "The Loneliest Planet," etc. get the nudge they deserve. In that sense the ISPs are very relevant.

  • Aron Campisano | February 24, 2013 2:30 PMReply

    Lower the budget limit to ONE MILLION and you're done.

  • J.Broadway | February 24, 2013 2:22 PMReply

    Brilliant article Indiewire! You called them out Lmao! Hopefully they care about their integrity and act accordingly! Linda Cardellini should've gotten that best actress award!

  • Katy Kern | February 24, 2013 2:13 PMReply

    "Create a "Spirit of Indie" category for the bigger movies." - Shouldn't the Academy Awards then have a category for Indie films then? Seems only fair.

  • Thomasi | February 24, 2013 4:03 PM

    Except the idea of the Oscars is that they represent the best of everything that was released in the U.S. during a given year, without preference to budget or commercial success or nation of origin. We all know that they haven't, in practice, been that broadly focused, but for them to start adding categories would be to plainly acknowledge a kind of class system.

  • Dan | February 24, 2013 2:11 PMReply

    I don't understand it. Surely SLP isn't an independant film at all? Ugh, this infuriates me, its just not a great film. Poor Moonrise Kingdom, most underappreciated film of the year, Wes Anderson will never win anything. David O Russell winning anything makes me feel ill.

  • VIKA | February 24, 2013 4:26 PM

    All this SLP love makes me feel ill, too. On top of it, J Law and O Russell have started to seriously annoy me.

    I sincerely hope Wes & Roman Coppola are gonna win an Oscar for best original screenplay even though it's probably wishful thinking.

  • Katy Kern | February 24, 2013 2:29 PM

    MOONRISE KINGDOM was my favorite film of last year. It's a shame it's not getting the recognition it deserves.

  • J.Broadway | February 24, 2013 2:23 PM

    I completely concur!