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Independent Films and Filmmakers Ready for Spotlight at Annual Spirit Awards

Independent Films and Filmmakers Ready for Spotlight at Annual Spirit Awards

Independent Films and Filmmakers Ready for Spotlight at Annual Spirit Awards

by Eugene Hernandez

Independent Spirit Award nominee in the debut performance category Judy Marte (center) from “Raising Victor Vargas” with co-star Melonie Diaz and “Elephant” star John Robinson at Thursday’s nominees reception at the W Hotel in Westwood, CA. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE.

While Hollywood ponders its annual Oscars on Sunday, movers and shakers from the independent film community have descended upon Los Angeles this week to toast the best and the brightest in their business. The nominating committee for the annual IFP Independent Spirit Awards, this year headed by producer Jeff Kleeman, sifted through 190 films to narrow the nominees in 14 categories for Saturday’s event, which will once again welcome 1,300 guests to a tent on the beach in Santa Monica.

They nominated 34 films this year, with Jim Sheridan‘s “In America” leading the pack with six nominations. Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini‘s “American Splendor” tied with five nominations alongside Peter Sollett‘s “Raising Victor Vargas.” Sofia Coppola‘s “Lost in Translation” and Billy Ray‘s “Shattered Glass” each received four nominations. A number of smaller films which have not received wide attention or distribution are represented again this year among the list of nominees, including Lisa France‘s “Anne B. Real,” Joey Curtis“Quattro Noza,” Deborah Kampmeier‘s “Virgin,” and Adam Bhala Lough‘s “Bomb The System.”

Honoring Independence

“I don’t think you can ignore the fact that the Spirit Awards are honoring a completely different set of films on the whole,” IFP/Los Angeles executive director Dawn Hudson told indieWIRE yesterday. “There is just a group of films and filmmakers that are being honored and presented at the ceremony that create a whole different world and whole different ethos.”

“By its very nature, this event celebrates a paradigm shift from large budget movies with formulaically constructed stories to organic stories that more and more audiences are responding to,” explained SenArt FilmsRobert May, producer of nominees “The Station Agent” and “The Fog of War.” Continuing he added, “If you look back as I have at previous nominations, our films are in the greatest of company.”

IFP/Los Angeles executive director Dawn Hudson talks to the guests at Thursday’s party. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE.

This year’s awards, which will be broadcast live on the Independent Film Channel and taped for broadcast on Bravo later in the evening, are freed from the burden of taking place during the early days of a war, a factor that cast a darker tone on last year’s ceremony. However, once again this year, participants are encouraged to speak freely and without limits on stage. Diana Zahn-Storey is back to produce the event for the 10th consecutive year.

“What makes it unique is that the work it endorses is unique,” nominee Ben Coccio (“Zero Day”) told indieWIRE. “All of the movies the Spirit Awards showcase are different and exciting and intriguing. It’s like a good cross-section of American cinema’s vanguard.” Continuing he added, “What also seems to set it apart, not that I’ve ever been before, is that the ceremony itself looks like a lot of fun — very laid back and informal in the best possible way.”

The 11-person nominating committee, headed by Kleeman, included IFP/Los Angeles Executive Director Dawn Hudson, cinematographer John Bailey, director Tony Bui, director Patricia Cardoso, casting director Aisha Coley, actor Daryl Hannah, producer Meg LaFauve, screenwriter Jose Rivera, producer Stacy Sher, documentary filmmaker David Siegel, and film critic Kenneth Turan. In determining the nominees the group applied the following criteria (as detailed by the IFP): original, provocative subject matter, uniqueness of vision, economy of means with particular attention paid to total budget and individual compensation, percentage of independent financing. Budgets for eligible movies tend to top out at about $15 million, Hudson told indieWIRE. The winners were chosen by the IFP national membership that includes more than 9,000 people.

Freedom to Speak, Plenty to Drink, and Gifts Aplenty

“From the minute John Waters takes the stage you get the feeling that anything goes here,” Hudson said, “We don’t have a limit of how long people can be on the stage, we don’t have censorship of what people can say.” Continuing she chuckled, “They can do whatever they want up there — there are no rules to suppress behavior in any way.”

“The core feeling is that this is our community and we are here to celebrate and see each other,” Hudson said. “I mean when you start cocktails at 11:30 a.m…” Indeed Spirit Awards day in L.A. is a long one with the cocktails before noon, a sit-down lunch, the ceremony, and then many guests will make their way over to nearby Shutters on the Beach for the popular IFC/Target after-party. Celebrating got under way last night here in Los Angeles at the annual nominees party at the W Hotel in Westwood.

Tom Cruise is serving as this year’s honorary chair at the event, recognized for his work on smaller films. The actor had a hand in bringing this year’s nominee “Shattered Glass” to the screen.

On awards day, the IFP has enlisted notable gift-givers On 3 Productions to create the goody bag for attendees and to offer exclusive premiums for event presenters. All 1,300 attendees will take home an IFC leather bowling bag stuffed with gifts, from clothing to beauty products and even some vodka and wine. While presenters will be pampered in a backstage gift lounge and will take home luggage, a new TiVo, clothing, weekend getaways, a Crunch membership, a certificate for free LASIK eye surgery and countless other gifts valued at some $20,000. Yes, it’s awards season in Los Angeles!

Cash Awards and Special Attention

Nominated for the Someone To Watch Award are Ben Coccio for “Zero Day” (left) and Andrew Bujalski for “Funny Ha Ha,” hanging out together at the nominees party. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE.

There are three awards that the annual IFP Independent Spirit Awards nominating committee doesn’t select, those are cash prizes awarded by special jurys and are singling out narrative and doc filmmakers, as well as producers. The Turning Leaf Someone to Watch Award presents a $20,000 unrestricted grant to a narrative filmmaker who has not yet received significant attention for his or her work. This year’s nominees are Andrew Bujalski for “Funny Ha Ha,” Ben Coccio for “Zero Day,” and Ryan Eslinger for “Madness and Genius.”

“The Awards are unique in that it’s a laid back event, in sharp contrast to the spirit of independent filmmakers (most indie filmmakers are not laid back at all, but are constantly trying to fight having their career slide downhill),” filmmaker Ryan Eslinger told indieWIRE. “I am appreciative and honored to be nominated for an award at an event that has nominated films such as ‘City of God’ in their other categories.”

“My category is not one that you can apply for — your work has to be suggested by someone and then approved by a committee — so for me this whole thing has just been a big, happy surprise,” explained Coccio. “I always thought people who said the following were just being falsely modest, but it really is an honor just to be nominated.”

Nominated for the annual Producers Award, which also carries a $20,000 unrestricted grant are Callum Greene & Anthony Kartagas, producers of “Happy Here and Now” and “Homework,” Lauren Moews, producer of “Cabin Fever” and “Briar Patch,” and Mary Jane Skalski, producer of “The Station Agent” and “The Jimmy Show.”

In the DIRECTV/IFC Truer Than Fiction Award category, the maker or makers of a documentary will receive a $20,000 unrestricted grant. Nominees this year include Linda Goode Bryant & Laura Poitras for “Flag Wars,” Megan Mylan & Jon Shenk for “Lost Boys of Sudan,” Nathaniel Kahn for “My Architect,” and Robb Moss for “The Same River Twice.”

Sharing a moment at the Spirit Awards party (from left to right) are rep Jeff “The Dude” Dowd, IFC Entertainment president Jonathan Sehring, Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard, and John Sloss of Cinetic Media and Sloss Law. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE.

“For me the Awards represent an opportunity to acknowledge the truly independent filmmaker,” said Paul Devlin, director of the doc “Power Trip,” which is nominated for best documentary in the main competition. “Especially for the non-fiction filmmaker this may mean someone who shoots alone, edits in his or her apartment, self-distributes when necessary, and still manages to get their work on the big screens for a wide audience. I’m thankful that the Independent Spirit awards honors this kind of effort.”

“The competition is stiff in the Best Documentary category,” Devlin said, “But we’re delighted to be in such fine company. I’m looking forward to meeting lots of kindred spirits at the ceremony.” Devlin is competing with Errol Morris“The Fog of War,” George Hickenlooper‘s “Mayor of Sunset Strip,” Nathaniel Kahn’s “My Architect,” and Scott Hamilton Kennedy‘s “OT: Our Town.”

Emerging Talent

Among the categories that showcase younger, emerging makers and writers are the prize for best first feature, best first screenplay and the John Cassavetes Award. Adam Bhala Lough‘s “Bomb The System,” Vadim Perelman‘s “House of Sand and Fog,” Patty Jenkins“Monster,” Joey Curtis“Quattro Noza,” and Catherine Hardwicke‘s “Thirteen” are in competition for first feature, while in the first screenplay category the nominees are Karen Moncrieff for “Blue Car,” Patty Jenkins’ for “Monster,” Peter Sollett and Eva Vives‘ for “Raising Victor Vargas,” Thomas McCarthy for “The Station Agent,” and Catherine Hardwicke & Nikki Reed for “Thirteen.”

The annual John Cassavetes Award recognizes a film made for under $500,000. Nominated in the category this year are Lisa France’s “Anne B. Real,” Justin Lin‘s “Better Luck Tomorrow,” Peter Hedges“Pieces of April,” Thomas McCarthy’s “The Station Agent,” and Deborah Kampmeier‘s “Virgin.” Among the other newcomers are actors recognized in the best debut performance category. They are Anna Kendrick from “Camp,” Judy Marte from “Raising Victor Vargas,” Victor Rasuk from “Raising Victor Vargas,” Nikki Reed from “Thirteen,” and Janice Richardson from “Anne B. Real.”

Not included among the nominees is Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s “21 Grams.” This year, the nominating committee decided to award a Special Distinction Award to the movie, noting that the film’s budget did not fit within the Spirit Awards “economy of means” stipulation, yet they felt the film was worthy. The committee singled out the Focus Features release for its “uniqueness of vision, bold conception and direction, the honesty of its screenwriting, bravery of its performances, and achievement of every level of filmmaking.”

“Hosting the Independent Spirit Awards is the perfect job,” said host John Waters in a statement. “Every year I get to show up in Santa Monica to glorify films the Hollywood studio system used to hate and now has to pretend to embrace.”

[The Independent Spirit Awards will air live in their entirety on the Independent Film Channel tomorrow (Saturday, February 28) at 5:00 p.m. ET. Bravo will air an edited version of the show with a one-hour red carpet program at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT.]

[DISCLOSURE: Eugene Hernandez served as the chair of the selection committee for the DIRECTV/IFC Truer Than Fiction Award.]

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