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Can Little Indies Hope to Win Big Awards? The Independent Spirit Awards Beg the Question

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire March 2, 2014 at 2:03PM

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.
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SPIRITS 2011 | Updated List of Spirit Award Presenters
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 Cate Blanchett at the Spirit Awards.

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 Brad Pitt at the Spirits.

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.

The scene at the Spirit Awards.
The scene at the Spirit Awards.

Still, with the dominance of "12 Years a Slave" alongside victories for Sanders and Hartigan, perhaps it's about time to stop whining and admit that (alright, alright, alright) there's something to all this. While the Spirits' process for honoring indie achievements hasn't improved a bit — as I argued last year, the massive budget cap of $20 million for qualifying features has caused the ceremony to lose its indie quotient — it still accurately represents the dissonance between genuine independent filmmaking and the capitalist forces that tend to wear it as a brand. "Everyone's walking that proverbial plank in independent film," McConaughey told the room in his characteristically meandering speech, but then realized the statement was relative. "I miss that feeling," he added.

Perhaps the most potent criticism came from host Patton Oswalt, whose generally flat, goofy delivery was rescued by a pre-taped segment in which he promoted a machine called "Indie-izer" with the power to turn any studio project into a low-budget affair. "If you line your films small with a slowly dripping revenue stream," he said, "the Indie-izer is for you."

If indie film seems out of place at this Hollywood-centric affair, Hollywood itself hasn't been comfortable in its own skin lately.

In fact, the Indie-izer runs the show -- which, per usual, felt more like an opportunity for the studio world to acknowledge the idea of indies than a haven for them. At the ceremony's conclusion, a crowd of attendees swarmed Angelina Jolie as she attempted to follow her fiancé Pitt out the door. "I wanted 'The Square' to win best documentary!" she said to a colleague. (The prize went to the imminently enjoyable music doc "20 Feet from Stardom," another Oscar frontrunner.) Nearby, a distributor whose movies won no prizes rolled his eyes. "The whole thing is…annoying," he said. "For the filmmakers who made a $1 million movie, they don't feel at home here."

To be fair, the Spirits have made specific effort to mitigate this issue with awards like the $25,000 prize for the Stella Artois Truer Than Fiction Award (which went to "Let the First Burn," Jason Osder's doc about the 1980s' radical group MOVE), the Piaget Producers Award (Toby Halbrooks and James M. Johnston for "Aint' Them Bodies Saints) and Someone to Watch, which went to "Newlyweeds."

However, last year these awards were also cut from the final telecast -- as were the winners for best documentary.

At the same time, if indie film seems out of place at this Hollywood-centric affair, Hollywood itself hasn't been comfortable in its own skin lately. While studio product has grown increasingly repetitive and changing modes of distribution have thrown the entire future of the medium into question, the artists working outside the system may wind up with the upper hand. One could spot literal manifestations of the industry's uncertainties throughout the awkward event.

After winning her best actress prize, Cate Blanchett — you guessed it, another Oscar favorite — headed to the press tent for her post-win press conference, only to be temporarily trapped by the onset of a sudden downpour. "There's a storm coming," she said as the sound of falling water filled the room. "Nice to know you all. If we die here, it was in the service of the industry and my career."

Like McConaughey's earlier remarks, Blanchett was clearly joking. Yet the gentle quirkiness of the moment, in the context of the event's questionable function, meshed with weird and mysterious undertones — you know, like an Alain Resnais film. And in that moment of awkward surprise, when a system steeped in control briefly lost its grip on the proceedings, the elements missing from the big picture finally, if fleetingly, coalesced.

This article is related to: Awards Season Roundup, Awards, Reviews, Spirit Awards, 12 Years a Slave, Nat Sanders, This Is Martin Bonner, Matthew McConaughey, Brad Pitt, Brad Pitt, Steve McQueen, Cate Blanchett, Alain Resnais, Academy Awards