Film Independent welcomed television to the Spirit Awards on Tuesday with the announcement of nominees for its inaugural TV categories honoring new scripted and non-scripted or documentary series. In signature style, many of the TV honorees came from small shows aching for recognition and celebration by such an esteemed organization, whose profiles might not otherwise be high enough to garner attention from other awards bodies.
This has always been the brilliance of the Film Independent Spirit Awards, the idea of curating and elevating more intimate productions, shining a bright light on otherwise overlooked projects and sometimes boosting them into a position to reach a wider audience, both within the community and without. Seeing performers included like Abby McEnany from Showtime’s “Work in Progress”, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan from Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever,” and the entire ensemble of HBO’s “I May Destroy You” is energizing, a reminder that the Emmys or Golden Globes are not the only arbiter of quality TV programming.
But as exciting and innovative as many of the nominees are, there remains a larger question of how Film Independent arrived at its decisions and further, whether or not the strictures and delineations put in place for TV eligibility are really the best way to analyze the medium it’s celebrating.
One such attribute is that all shows submitted for Spirit Awards must have had all or part of its first season broadcast between January 1, 2020 and December 31, 2020. The decision to focus exclusively on new content makes sense in a way, eliminating the opportunity for single shows to dominate the awards year after year, an issue that plagues so many other TV awards. But is that really the best lens through which to celebrate TV, a medium that has serialization built into its very DNA?
And while we’re working with a sample size of exactly one batch of nominees which aired in an unprecedented year in which both film and TV production and distribution were completely disrupted, it’s worth noting that all of the nominees for Best New Scripted Series are, in fact, limited series, save for Apple TV+ anthology series “Little America.” The same phenomenon was repeated in Best New Non-Scripted or Documentary Series, where four of the five nominees were limited series, save for HBO’s “We’re Here,” which was renewed for a second season last June.
It’s an issue that seems destined to recur in years to come for fairly straightforward reasons. Nearly every limited series is, in fact, a new series. That’s why they call them limited series. The series are limited.
In many ways, it feels like a holdover from the Spirit Awards’ roots, viewing artistic expression as a single story, told within the confines of a defined space. It is the trope of the “eight-hour movie” made manifest. No matter what a TV creator tells you, they are not actually making a super-long movie, divided into roughly equal pieces — or rather, they shouldn’t be. TV has episodes for a reason. If people wanted eight-hour movies, then movies would be eight hours long. Episodic entertainment serves a purpose and a story in a different way than film does, and it’s important to recognize those differences. More than that, so much of the best TV is telling stories that span years, span seasons. The restrictions put in place by Film Independent mean that actual best TV goes overlooked because shows often take time to grow into their potential.
And then there’s the money.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that the TV portion of the Spirit Awards aren’t actually honoring independent TV, just as the film categories aren’t honoring independent filmmaking as we once knew it. In their published rules and regulations, the organization explains that its nominating committees use the following guidelines to determine nominations in TV: “innovation, uniqueness of vision; original, provocative subject matter; diversity & inclusion, on and off camera, and also in the narrative and themes of the series.”
On the face, determining nominations in film are similar, but have distinct differences. Nominating committees evaluating film submissions look for, again, diversity, innovation, and uniqueness and provocative subject matter, but also on economy of means, as well as percentage of financing from independent sources.
That’s perhaps the crux of the TV portion of the Spirit Awards. While TV budgets are notoriously inscrutable — HBO reportedly spent $60 million on the final six episodes of “Game of Thrones” and Apple TV+ was rumored to have spent upwards of $300 million on the first season of “The Morning Show” — there should be no excuse for not instituting some kind of concrete budget restrictions for TV nominees. IndieWire has reached out to Film Independent for comment.
Generally, there don’t appear to be any outlandishly big-budget series lurking within the nominees, there are absolutely things that tend to raise eyebrows. While “Little America” is a great show, it’s financed by one of the world’s largest corporations, one that made nearly $275 billion in 2020. How much of that went into funding “Little America”? Not much, probably, but for a show filmed with a different cast in a different place for each of its eight episodes, it’s probably more than you might expect.
Again, that’s nothing against “Little America,” but a question of what a small market TV series looks like in 2021. Is it something working with obscenely low budgets? Or is it something that feels as though its concept could have been executed on a shoestring budget in 1994, but that looks like (several) million bucks in 2020?
Of all the series nominees, it’s only “Work in Progress” that started its life as an honest-to-God independent TV project. The pilot of the series was created by McEnany and Tim Mason and was accepted as a Sundance submission in 2018. Further, the pilot of the series is the actual pilot McEnany and Mason originally made, not something purchased and then reworked and reshot with Showtime’s oversight.
While it may be near impossible to ascertain what independent TV is, it does feel like it’s easier to identify what it’s not. And hard as I try, it’s difficult to look at shows that come from Apple TV+ or Amazon — consumer companies that dabble in entertainment, the better to drive customers to their websites — and see them as capturing that independent spirit, as it were. The same goes for other monoliths like the many-headed (hail) hydra that is Disney and its corporate cousins, including FX, Hulu, FX on Hulu, and so on, as well as deep-pocketed HBO.
It’s an issue not unique to TV, either, as there is plenty of reason to suspect that at least part of the industry backlash against Netflix’s “Roma,” which won Best International Film at the Independent Spirit Awards in 2019, was related to its distributor. Yes, the film had a budget of $15 million, but it was backed by Netflix, and the ad spend for the film, including Oscar buys, was rumored to be $25 million.
Without accountability and actual numbers, it seems near impossible to determine whether or not the TV categories at the Spirit Awards are representative of the kind of independent energy they want to encompass, which is a problem. And it’s a problem that the season strictures of the categories themselves eliminate the vast majority of series in any given year of even competing, making the awards far from representational of the TV landscape.
So if Film Independent isn’t looking to honor true, independent-like, small ball TV and it isn’t looking to consider the vast landscape of TV projects, new or otherwise, then what exactly are they honoring with their awards? What is the value of celebrating only the new in a medium built to tell expanded stories? How do you know a series is independently-minded if you have no idea how much money was invested to make it look that way?
It’s great that there are now TV categories at the Spirit Awards but the only way they can be meaningful is if people can discern what, exactly, it is that you’re rewarding. To eventually be a potential factor in the TV awards season as a whole, the Spirit Awards are going to have to do some soul-searching. Until then, the accolades will be little more than a novelty.