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

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire February 24, 2013 at 1:54PM

"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.
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Andy Samberg at the Independent Spirit Awards.
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."
"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.

"Gimme the Loot."
IFC Films "Gimme the Loot."
Shrink the voting body. In one of his opening gags, Samberg noted that while he has few indie credits to his name, the box office grosses for his studio projects roughly equal those of movies in limited release. In fact, among Saturday's winners, there were only three categories in which the highest grossing box office contender didn't win. A massive voting body chooses the Spirit winners, but while all IFP member and Film Independent members get to vote, they don't all get the chance to see every nominee. Not everybody has access to special screenings or private screeners. With smaller voting and nominations committees, the Spirits could veto movies that may have already transitioned into a commercial realm unworthy of the event or those that otherwise don't fit the indie spirit moniker.

Lower the budget limit -- and keep it there. Over the years, Film Independent has maintained a variety of budgetary limitations for movies that qualify for the awards. The bar is currently set at $20 million -- but "Silver Linings Playbook," made for around $21 million, managed to apply for an exception and (perhaps due to some strong-arming on the part of distributor Harvey Weinstein) got it. If Film Independent had prevented "Silver Linings Playbook" from bending the rules, the results would have been very different this time.

Define the categories better. Stephen Chbosky won Best First Feature for "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," adapted from his book of the same name, even though he actually made his directorial debut 18 years ago with the little-seen "The Four Corners of Nowhere" (because it was barely released in theaters, Chbosky supposedly qualified this time). Already successful and well-known, Chbosky defeated more reasonable contenders whose recent debuts made them into true discoveries, like "Gimme the Loot" director Adam Leon and "Sound of My Voice" director Zal Batmanglij. As with the "Silver Linings" situation, if "Perks" didn't make the cut, the resulting category would have more accurately represented some of the emerging talent of American independent cinema worth singling out.

"The Perks of Being a Wallflower."
"The Perks of Being a Wallflower."

Create a "Spirit of Indie" category for the bigger movies. Given the constant threat that the most popular and commercial title could take over the ceremony, the Spirits might consider grouping together those films made for larger sums and honoring them for maintaining originality against difficult odds. This would allow for the presence of the Hollywood content needed to please sponsors without endangering the prospects for other nominees.

Foreground the awards that deserve more attention. While the main set of winners are revealed at the ceremony, a number of Fimmaker Grants are announced ahead of the event, but only receive passing recognition during the ceremony itself. Leon won the Someone to Watch award for "Gimme the Loot" but delivered his acceptance speech in a pre-recorded video. In one of the few occasions when a figure exclusively associated with the indie sector took the stage, Mynette Louie took the Piaget Producers Award and delivered a brief scripted speech. Sean Baker's "Starlet" won the Robert Altman Award, another occasion when a genuine indie managed to briefly savor the spotlight. But these moments played like side dishes to the glitzier occasion at hand and were all but forgotten by its climax. Even so, the Independent Spirit Awards continue to represent a certain idea about the persistence of movies outside the studio-driven mainstream standards. But it routinely fails to advertise the movies that truly need it.

This article is related to: Awards, Spirit Awards, Andy Samberg, Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell