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Spirit Awards 2016: Inside the Independents’ Alternative Oscars

Spirit Awards 2016: Inside the Independents' Alternative Oscars

“Spotlight” took home five wins at the Spirit Awards Saturday, the annual indie alternative to the Oscars voted on by members of Film Independent.

“Spotlight” won Best Feature, Director (Tom McCarthy), Screenplay (McCarthy & Josh Singer), Editing (Tom McArdle, his fifth film with McCarthy) and Ensemble. This feat is unlikely to be repeated on Oscar night, where the movie is in the running for Best Picture in a hotly contested race and Original Screenplay, which it is favored to win. So it was a sweet win for the filmmakers and backers Participant Media, Anonymous Content producers Steve Golin and Michael Sugar, and indie distributor Open Road, which has shown Hollywood it can muster a robust awards campaign. In one of several acceptance speeches, McCarthy said that the industry needs indie companies like Open Road, which back risky movies like “Spotlight”—without knowing what the end result might be.

For once, the indies went indie, although “Spotlight” and “Room” Best Actress Brie Larson’s wins fulfilled the usual expectation that low-budget Oscar frontrunners usually seize the Spirits. (“Boyhood” and “Birdman” split the Spirit Awards last year.) Gob-smacking “Spotlight” star Michael Keaton, who won for “Birdman” last year, presented Best Actress to Larson and reminded the crowd that “by the way, Jacob Tremblay is 47 years old. I’d just like to keep things in perspective.” Larson, who will likely repeat her win at the Oscars, told the Spirits attendees: “I’m so excited to be in the room with such brave filmmakers,” reminding that it was her breakout role in indie “Short Term 12” that led to “Room.” 

Best First Screenplay went to Irish Canadian Emma Donoghue, also Oscar-nominated for A24’s “Room,” who movingly thanked her partner and mother of her two children as well as director Lenny Abrahamson, who she described as “the Gandalf to her Bilbo.”

While transgender actress Harmony Santana was nominated for a Spirit for 2011 release “Gun Hill Road,” Mya Taylor’s Supporting Female win for Sean Baker’s “Tangerine” (Magnolia) marked the first in Spirit history. Taylor told her transgender colleagues to “keep pushing,” reminding that she applied for 186 jobs two years ago to no avail.”Am I going to trip on this long-ass dress coming up here?” she said while accepting her award. “I came from almost nothing. My life did a total 360…There is very beautiful transgender talent. You gotta get out there and put it in your next movie!” (Watch her acceptance speech here.)

Diminutive Abraham Attah took Male Lead for his first acting role, and his costar Idris Elba Supporting Male for “Beasts of No Nation.” Before Attah’s win, just in case, Elba brought him onstage to say:”I couldn’t have done it without you.”

(Watch my video interview with Idris Elba here.)

Outdoors during the frenetic pre-show networking phase and inside the huge Santa Monica tent (where wine and Maker’s Mark flowed), among the industry players on hand were Netflix content czar Ted Sarandos (who paid $12 million for all rights to “Beasts of No Nation”) and the Amazon film team of Ted Hope and Bob Berney (who recently landed Woody Allen’s next movie),along with old-school distributors Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula of Fox Searchlight (“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”),Harvey Weinstein (“Carol”) andTom Bernard and Michael Barker of Sony Pictures Classics.

Their pickups “Son of Saul” and “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” took home trophies for International Film and First Feature, respectively. “The grammar of film has not stopped evolving,” said rookie Hungarian director Lazlo Nemes, who is favored to win Sunday, “and it’s something we wanted to explore.”

Without competition from big-scale Oscar contenders “The Revenant” and “The Big Short,” folks like venerated indie cinematographer Ed Lachman, who shot “Carol” in 16 mm, could score a Spirit win—and a standing ovation. “Awards are always unfair if you win or if you lose,” said Lachman, who thanked director Todd Haynes, “who always inspires me and pushes me.” This could prove a welcome award for “Carol,” which is not favored to win any of its six chances at an Oscar.

Similarly, without Brit contender “Amy” in the mix, Joshua Oppenheimer won Documentary for “The Look of Silence” (Drafthouse), his sequel to his Oscar-nominated Indonesia genocide doc “The Act of Killing.” Alas, his acceptance remarks were cut off for time. (Read his speech here.)

The John Cassavetes Spirit Award for films budgeted under $500,000 went to fest fave “Krisha,” which was “a family affair,” said director Trey Edward Shultz, who shot the film in nine days at his mother’s house. (A24 opens the film March 18.)

“The Spirit Awards honor the movies you meant to see,” declared co-hosts Kate McKinnon and Kumail Nanjiani, among the best “Spirits” entertainers so far. McKinnon did a dead-on imitation of Cate Blanchett’s “Carol,” described as the most compelling movie about lost gloves since O.J. Simpson, and they both nailed the “Room” opener as mother and “son.” My favorite bit was McKinnon’s impersonation of an oafish Kickstarter employee (“Anomalisa” was the first Best Feature nominee backed by the crowdfunder): “I wanted to day drink in Santa Monica and meet Paul Dano,” she said before going over to plant a wet one on the “Love & Mercy” nominee; his reaction was priceless. (Watch Spirit Award clips here.)

READ MORE: 20 Kickstarter-Funded Films Earned Indie Spirit Nominations This Year

Go backstage with the Spirit winners here.

After the award ceremony, many of the folks in the tent sashayed over to 41 Ocean for “45 Years” distributor IFC’s jovial annual post-Spirits party hosted by Jonathan Sehring, where the co-hosts celebrated with winner Marielle Heller, “Tangerine” director Sean Baker, “Mediterranea” producers Chris and Eleanor Columbus, “45 Years” writer-director Andrew Haigh, “Anomalisa” directors Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman, “The End of the Tour” screenwriter Donald Margulies, Ed Pressman, Ryan Werner, John Sloss, Sarah Silverman, Juno Temple, Chris Abbott, Aisha Tyler, Jess Weixler, Josh Mond, Reed Morano, David Call, Antonio Campos, Catherine Hardwicke, Kimberly Peirce, Amy Berg, Josh Safdie, and Ron Yerxa, among others.

Full winners list:

Best Feature
Best Director
Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight” 
Best Screenplay
Tom McCarthy & Josh Singer, “Spotlight”
Best First Screenplay
Emma Donoghue, “Room”
Best First Feature
Award given to the director and producer.
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” 
Best Female Lead
Brie Larson, “Room” (WINNER)
Best Male Lead
Abraham Attah, “Beasts of No Nation”
Best Supporting Female
Mya Taylor, “Tangerine”
Best Supporting Male
Idris Elba, “Beasts of No Nation” 
Best Documentary
“The Look of Silence” 
Best Cinematography 
Ed Lachman, “Carol” 
Best Editing
Tom McArdle, “Spotlight” 
Best International Film
“Son of Saul” 
John Cassavetes Award
Given to the best feature made for under $500,000. Award given to the writer, director and producer; Executive Producers are not awarded.
Robert Altman Award
Kiehl’s Someone to Watch Award
The 22nd annual Someone to Watch Award, sponsored by Kiehl’s Since 1851, recognizes a talented filmmaker of singular vision who has not yet received appropriate recognition. The award includes a $25,000 unrestricted grant funded by Kiehl’s Since 1851.
Felix Thompson, “King Jack” 
Piaget Producers Award
The 19th annual Producers Award, sponsored by Piaget, honors emerging producers who, despite highly limited resources, demonstrate the creativity, tenacity and vision required to produce quality, independent films. The award includes a $25,000 unrestricted grant funded by Piaget.
Mel Eslyn 
Truer Than Fiction
The 21st annual Truer Than Fiction Award, sponsored by LensCrafters is presented to an emerging director of non-fiction features who has not yet received significant recognition. The award includes a $25,000 unrestricted grant funded by LensCrafters.
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, “Incorruptible” 

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