Why the Indie Spirits Are Moving Away from the Oscars

Adapting to a pandemic means changing things up for Film Independent's Spirit Awards.
Chloe Zhao, winner of the Bonnie Award for 'The Rider'33rd Film Independent Spirit Awards, Press Room, Los Angeles, USA - 03 Mar 2018Chloe Zhao, who produced, directed and wrote the Western drama 'The Rider', has won Film Independent?s inaugural Bonnie Award, given to recognize a mid-career female director.
Chloe Zhao
Stephen Lovekin/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

This year, for the first time, the Independent Spirit Awards are moving away from the Saturday before the Oscars. That’s because it became clear that a live event, even in a billowing seaside tent in Santa Monica, just wasn’t going to happen. “This was the year to try new things,” said Film Independent president Josh Welsh in a phone interview. “It saddens me that we are not going to do the show on a beach in a tent; we waited as long as we could to make the decision. It’s clearly not safe to do an event; the world is not ready to meet in a tent in April. The Oscars may find a way to do a physical event, but at this point it is not safe or legal.”

At first, when the Oscar show moved back to Sunday, April 25, 2021, the Spirits followed their lead and rescheduled to Saturday, April 24. But when the live event was scuttled due to the ongoing pandemic, the nonprofit arts organization that produces the Spirits decided to mount the annual awards ceremony as only an IFC prime time live broadcast. Film Independent called IFC and asked if there was a better time slot to grow more viewers. The answer was yes: Thursday, April 22 at 7pm PT, 10pm ET.

“IFC does premieres at 10pm on the East Coast,” said Welsh. “That’s how we ended up at the time. We’ll try it out. The move to broadcasting on Thursday night is a one-off for 2021 related to COVID. Assuming around the world people take the vaccine and we come out on the other side, in 2022, the expectation is we’ll be back to the beach the Saturday afternoon before the Oscars.”

As for next week’s Spirits announcement of the nominees on January 26 (10am ET / 7am PT on Film Independent’s website and YouTube channel), seven weeks ahead of the Oscar nominations on March 15, that’s the usual time spread, said Welsh. “Normally we announce nominations in November. This year with the show in April we decided on the end of January. We wanted to make sure the voters have time to watch all the nominated films and shows.”

Film Independent president Josh Welsh.Anne Thompson

Oddly, during the pandemic Film Independent has grown to over 7,000 members, “one of the unexpected positive things of COVID,” said Welsh. “We expected that arts organizations would be losing members, but what we found, surprisingly, people are joining, more people all around the country and internationally. That trend has amplified over the last nine months. Since last March our international membership is up 90 percent (though not huge numbers). All our programming is online, accessible to people anywhere in the world. We don’t have a marketing budget, we’re not actively marketing internationally, but we’re reaching people.”

To select this year’s Spirit nominees from a record 495 features submissions, Film Independent assembled six committees comprised of 50 anonymous filmmakers, craftspeople, past Spirit winners, critics, and festival programmers. Once the nominees are announced, all active Film Independent members can vote for the winners. (The Robert Altman and John Cassavetes awards are selected by the nominating committee.)

The Spirits have a budget cap of $22.5 million, and for international films, unlike the Oscars, language has nothing to do with eligibility, but rather the country of origin of the writer, director, and producer. If a movie is foreign-language but its content makes it an American story, like, say “Minari,” it’s not an international film.

Welsh and his producing team are meeting now to determine exactly what the broadcast show will be. “We have a fantastic host coming on,” said Welsh. “We’re figuring out how you produce a great dynamic award broadcast in the midst of COVID. It’s going to be good, if different, but the spirit of the show will be the same. It’s been a terrible year for the industry but a great year for filmmaking.”

Besides the linear broadcast on IFC, audiences can also tune into the Spirit Awards’ simultaneous stream on AMC+. And starting Friday, April 23, the full awards ceremony will be accessible on demand across AMC+ and IFC platforms.

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