"I feel terrible," said one representative of a major film festival in the minutes after the conclusion of the Film Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday afternoon, where "Birdman" won Best Film. "What do we even say to the 'Boyhood' team?"
Presumably, said team would survive: A year ago, nobody would have predicted that Richard Linklater's fabled "12 year project" could have gone this far. A commercial hit with six Oscar nominations, "Boyhood" didn't go home empty-handed from the Spirits, with Patricia Arquette nabbing another best supporting actress statue and Linklater winning for best director. However, few could doubt that "Boyhood" epitomized the notion of success in American independent film last year, while "Birdman" — a wildly enjoyable cinematic concoction, no doubt — reflected a far more refined production populated by celebrities and slick filmmaking trickery. "Birdman" is a wry commentary on Hollywood excess, but "Boyhood" illustrates the miraculous possibilities when one escapes it. Its only special effect is time.
Even if the movie was bound to lose to "Birdman" at the Oscars, it would have been especially apt for Linklater's achievement to receive a final celebration from the event theoretically designed to celebrate its existence. Linklater had to deal with a family emergency and couldn't make the ceremony; Ethan Hawke accepted the filmmaker's prize on his behalf. But it's no grand leap to view Linklater's absence in symbolic terms. Year after year, the Spirit Awards highlight several of the most commercial, widely seen movie among the crop of nominees.
While last year that didn't mean "12 Years of Slave" was undeserving of its prize, it did prevent weirder projects nowhere near the Oscar conversation, including "Frances Ha" and "All is Lost." The two prior years were even worse: "The Artist," a French-produced movie about classic Hollywood, beat out the likes of "Take Shelter" and "Beginners" in 2011, while 2012 found "Silver Linings Playbook" standing in the way of a victory for "Beasts of the Southern Wild," the one best picture nominee that year everyone knew would lose. Each time out, instead of providing one final reminder in the heat of award season that there's more to the picture beyond the biggest Oscar winners, the Spirits set the stage for them.
Which is not to say that the Saturday awards ceremony, capably organized by Film Independent, completely missed the point. Film Independent goes great lengths to support a world of movies produced without Hollywood support. The Spirits at least offer a venue for discussing such work as an immediate contrast to the Oscars, which embrace deep pockets and the world beholden to them.
If nothing else, the Spirits provide an excuse to discuss a different set of priorities. In the hour or so before the event, hundreds of figures from the independent film community wandered outside the Santa Monica gathering, ordering fruity spiked beverages and snacking on hor d'oeuvres. The ecosystem of producers, programmers, distributors publicists and others who work to bring attention to movies from outside the studio system certainly get the opportunity to toast their accomplishments.
However, they're left with the stinging reminder that money and exposure still win out. Nominees with no Oscar presence this year, including Ira Sachs' tender story of an aging gay couple "Love is Strange" and Ana Lily Amirpour's memorable black-and-white vampire fable "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night," went home empty-handed. They're still winners for those of us who treasure them. But that's hardly sufficient comfort.
To some degree, the distinction between independent work and commercial product has grown hazy in ways that the Spirits can't control. Two years ago, Spirits host Andy Samberg opened with the quasi-sarcastic remark "Fuck Hollywood," but this year's co-hosts Fred Armisen and Kristen Bell provided a more realistic portrait of the current environment — a tongue-in-cheek song about this year's nominees. "We're a little bit indie," they belted out, "and a little bit studio."
But the Spirits could still do more to resist being held hostage by the second half of that statement. Ultimately, the problem comes down to a $20 million budget cap for all nominees. With few exceptions, this has meant that the movie made closest to that ceiling — or, in the case of the $21 million "Silver Linings Playbook," just barely exceeding it and getting an exception — beats out candidates made in the $4 - $5 million range, a figure that encompasses everything from "Beasts" to "Boyhood." If the cap was only slightly lowered — say, to $15 million or even $10 million — it would automatically provide a cleaner definition of the kinds of movies that belong at the center of the ceremony.
Some experts counter that Film Independent has no real imperative to create these limitations given its need to attract celebrities and well-known titles. A few years back, I suggested that Film Independent devise a "Spirit of Indie" category for bigger productions, which would allow them a place at the table without dominating it. Instead, the Spirits continue to play out like a drumroll to the bigger Sunday event, with only modestly-budgeted productions ghettoized in the John Cassavetes Award category (which went to the genial comedy "Land Ho!" this year) providing a real contrast to the limitations of awards season.
"There's a story out there to be told, not by corporate America, but by you," said Ethan Hawke from the Spirits podium on Saturday, but in a room filled by corporate sponsors at a show beholden to keeping them happy, the irony was visible in every direction. When Paul Thomas Anderson accepted the Robert Altman Prize (announced in advance of the ceremony) for "Inherent Vice," his crack about sponsor American Airlines ("Don't fly American Airlines, they will fucking lose your luggage") was the truest moment of the day. Thanks to PTA, the event offered a fleeting glimpse of the prankish, anti-authoritarian mentality that allows certain filmmakers to challenge the restrictions of the marketplace. In an ideal world, the Spirits would follow suit.