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by Eric Kohn
March 2, 2014 2:03 PM
10 Comments
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Can Little Indies Hope to Win Big Awards? The Independent Spirit Awards Beg the Question

Photo by indieWIRE.

On the eve of the Oscars and the immediate aftermath of the Independent Spirit Awards, the chaotic war of art and commerce epitomized by this season suddenly felt very small. Late at night, word got around that New Wave master Alain Resnais had died in Paris at 91.

It was one of those news items that felt both inevitable and surreal to anyone passionate about the movies. It concluded a career that spanned half a century and spawned countless cinephiles with seminal enigmas of cinematic ingenuity, from "Night and Fog" to "Last Year at Marienbad" and "Hiroshima Mon Amour." Just last month, Resnais unveiled his final work, the theater adaptation "The Life of Riley," while the time travel head trip "Je T'Aime, Je T'aime" landed a weeklong revival at New York's Film Forum. For most of his career, Resnais was a ubiquitous symbol of cinema's power to riff on time and memory with transcendent, probing results. More than just an icon in the history of 20th-century art, Resnais proved it had no tangible restrictions. "I never looked to make difficult movies on purpose," he once said. "You make the films you want to make."

Cate Blanchett at the Spirit Awards. Eric Kohn

With his finest achievements, Resnais made that commitment look easy. But some 5,600 miles away from Paris, on a rainy Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles, it seemed harder than ever. In the press tent behind the stage for the Independent Spirit Awards, Brad Pitt looked out at a roomful of journalists, clutching the award for best feature that he shared for producing "12 Years a Slave," and didn't smile. "The risk was me being a distraction on this," he said. "The cold reality is that this is a hard movie to get made."

It was an assertion that stood out more than the movie's artistic credentials. At the Spirits, the celebration of the effortless innovation epitomized by committed individualistic filmmakers like Resnais was secondary to its showcasing of a constant dilemma: an environment designed to recognize autonomous creativity still wound up marginalizing it.

READ MORE: '12 Years a Slave' Leads 2014 Spirit Winners

For years, the Spirits have faced criticism (some of it in these parts) for allowing larger-budgeted productions, generally those with prominent roles in Oscar season, to dominate the awards. Last year, that allowed the slick comedy "Silver Linings Playbook" to dominate and Jennifer Lawrence to practice her Oscar speech; this time around, Steve McQueen's slavery drama got the dry run, nabbing five awards in major categories. In the case of "12 Years a Slave," however, its very existence was something of an anomaly in Hollywood, and so its victory felt less like a cheat than usual. In a sense, the Spirits got lucky this time.

Brad Pitt at the Spirits. Eric Kohn

Aside from "12 Years a Slave," there were a few other notable wins that improved the outcome of the proceedings and better reflected the real indie community operating outside the realm of celebrities and seven figure budgets. Nat Sanders snagged the Spirits' inaugural editing prize for his work on "Short Term 12," though anyone who has noticed Sanders' work on meticulously crafted low-budget projects like his first feature credit "Medicine for Melancholy" and Lynn Shelton's heavily improvised "Humpday" realized the prize recognized more than just one achievement. In his acceptance speech, Sanders (whose early credits included an episode of "The Biggest Loser") thanked "Medicine for Melancholy" director Barry Jenkins for "saving me from a career in reality television."

It was an appropriate reflection of the struggles faced by young creatives with an instinctual aversion to commerciality. The sentiment resurfaced again when director Chad Hartigan accepted the John Cassavetes Award for his unassuming character study "This Is Martin Bonner," which came and went from theaters last year with barely any noise aside from a handful of strong reviews. It would have been nice to see the prize go to a truly off-kilter piece of imaginative filmmaking like fellow nominee Andrew Bujalski's "Computer Chess." But Bonner's gradually involving tale of an alienated older man (Paul Eenhorn in one of last year's best roles) rebuilding his life as a volunteer aid to newly released prisoners still had the restraint and maturity to cast an ideal contrast with bigger commercial efforts. It didn't hurt that Hartigan pointed out in his acceptance speech that he made the movie for a paltry sum of $42,000.

But then, moments later, Matthew McConaughey was onstage accepting his acting prize for "Dallas Buyers Club," in another possible rehearsal session for Sunday night. "We had a little more than $42,000," he said with a smirk, meaning well, but also singling out the same elephant that lumbers through the room each year.

10 Comments

  • FP | March 3, 2014 5:55 PMReply

    Attending is always fun but I can't ever take it seriously when all the energy in the room is sucked up by the huge egos. What's supposed to be a celebration of excellence achieved against the odds is now just another televised, therefore commercial, endeavor. Watching the playback and not seeing the Robert Altman prize or Nat Sanders or Sean Bobbit winning proves that out. Bottom line, Film Independent gains little except credibility amongst church mice by reducing the cap on budgets. It means getting machines like Jennifer Lawrence and the folks in The Artist into the tent, and so the press follows and IFC profits, which means IFP does too. Very very happy a film like 12 YEARS A SLAVE won, but any film over 10M in budget is almost guaranteed a decent release, meaning it's not really independent at that point. The acquisition market has topped out at that price point and that should be where the demarcation point should be, but fat chance of that happening.

  • dnwilliams | March 3, 2014 4:07 PMReply

    It's a shame. All of these ceremonies fall into redundancy and seem like Oscar dry runs, when they could be awarding and celebrating very different films from one another. That;s the great thing about festival awards.

  • MicaHeeramunavu@yahoo.com | March 3, 2014 12:50 PMReply

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  • Simple | March 3, 2014 11:28 AMReply

    "According to MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, who created the awards, “the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them ... If I got them cups and awards they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.”

  • CantWin | March 3, 2014 8:25 AMReply

    Are people really pissed off that investors want to put millions into narrative films of substance?...are people pissed off that celebrities want to act in quality projects?...that audiences want to see these films?...that the Academy wants to reward them? The fact is...
    indie and commercial are not opposites...what we have is the industry of indie film and it
    is driven by stars and hits just like Hollywood...but on a smaller scale....microbudget filmmakers can either fight to penetrate the "indie industry" or stay outside of it and create
    their own awards...but the indie industry isn't going anywhere. Love it or hate it but that's the
    world we live in.

  • calcin | March 3, 2014 12:35 PM

    Then why have the shoestring statues? irony?

    people are pissed off that the films made at shoestring budgets have no award ceremony, even the so called indie spirit awards is just like the other hundreds of award ceremonies. Its fine that they want to play with the big boys but stop pretending you are something else by giving out shoestring statues to multi million dollar movies made by some studio umbrella.

  • Richard B. James | March 3, 2014 12:20 AMReply

    Ha...The Spirit Awards and the show is a joke...when GREAT indies that win Cannes and Sundance can't even win at here then there is nothing else to say!

  • Delorean | March 2, 2014 3:51 PMReply

    There's no mystery here. These award ceremonies are money-raising events. If they celebrated actual indies, without celebrities, they wouldn't earn anything.

    The more pertinent question is the behavior of the filmmaker-supported sponsoring organizations. Who benefits, from the income these ceremonies generate? Where does the money go?

  • Fred | March 2, 2014 2:50 PMReply

    Perhaps it's time for the indie spirit awards to pass on that shoestring prize to a new under 1 mil award ceremony. - and they can do a mini oscar as their award? Anything but shoestrings .. The new award show can recognize movies like blue ruin, cheap thrills, absentia , - anyone can make something look good with millions and an army of ppl. , but those that do with no budget, no stars are the true talented ones that deserve to be recognized

  • Simpletruth | March 3, 2014 6:19 PM

    @Fred....well said. Only issue is, until audiences start showing up for these well done indies with no named talent in them, we'll remain a status quo. Perhaps if named talent would order their gatekeepers (agents/mgrs) as well as themselves to actually commit to doing one true indie projects at scale per year, we'd see a more prosperous and robust indie environment