The Independent Spirit Awards are (still) the perfect award season antidote for those worn out by Oscar buzz.
It seems like every year I rediscover the Film Independent Spirit Awards. This award show, which airs the Saturday before the Academy Awards and honors the best and the brightest of the independent film scene, always seems like the perfect palate cleanser for months of agonizing Oscar predictions. Turn it on, watch some of your favorite actors and actresses get the cutaway time they deserve, root for some of your favorite movies from the previous year that were nowhere near Oscar contention, and emotionally prepare yourself for all the problematic things that will happen the following day. It may not be the anti-Oscars it’s billed as, but in a good year, it comes pretty damn close.
And if you’re new to the Spirit Awards – or if, like me, you just find yourself surprised to see it on your recommended viewings every Oscar weekend – now’s the time to jump onboard while the jumping is good. Everyone who’s read a recap or watched a viral clip knows the vibe is a little bit different. It’s more diverse. The entire thing takes place in a tent. People swear. Everyone seems to be a little bit drunker in the crowd, leading to some of the more uncomfortable moments in award season history. And, unlike the lowest-common-denominator humor of the Academy Awards, the Spirit Awards can often be funny. Really, really funny. Have you seen the opening monologue from 2017 hosts Nick Kroll and John Mulaney? Well, watch it again:
The mood of the show is only part of the equation: there’s also the Spirit Awards’ unique qualifying process. To be eligible for consideration, a movie must feature a budget of less than $20 million. This eliminates movies like Phantom Thread ($35m) and Darkest Hour ($30m) from consideration, despite both being considered strong contenders this Sunday with six Oscar nominations apiece. And while that may seem like it opens the playing field for too much crossover Oscar competition, the Spirit Awards also feature the John Cassavetes Award for the best feature made for under $500,000, highlighting some of the best micro-budget movies in American cinema each year. If you need any further proof of how vital a category like this can be to building your reputation as a filmmaker, past winners in this category include Ava DuVernay, Trey Edward Shults, the Safdie brothers, and Dee Rees, some of the most important directors working today.
Unlike the Academy Awards, the Spirit Awards also offer a unique out-clause for films that didn’t receive traditional distribution outside the festival circuit. The submission guidelines identify six major film festivals that will serve as a qualifying run for Spirit Awards eligibility: these are the Los Angeles Film Festival, New Directors/New Films, the New York Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival, and the Toronto International Film Festival. This blend of theatrical and festival eligibility may offer a cure to the end-of-year push for Oscar eligibility that drives so many lackluster distribution strategies. The Rider, a neo-western from director Chloé Zhao, received the Art Cinema award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and features prominently at this weekend’s Spirit Awards, despite not getting its theatrical release until April of this year.
Because of its emphasis on independent cinema, the Spirit Awards also offer a unique category among major Hollywood award shows: that of the first-time filmmaker or screenplay. In 2017, for example, Robert Eggers‘ The Witch won both categories, beating out independent darlings like Swiss Army Man and The Fits in an incredibly crowded – and impressive – field. This year those categories will honor movies like Ingrid Goes West and Columbus, films that signaled the emergence of new talent in Hollywood. They may not come with the kind of cultural cache offered by major studio releases, but by all accounts, they were among the best movies of the year and deserved to be acknowledged as such.
And this is where the award show shines. Unlike the Academy Awards, the Independent Spirit Awards at least tries to keep the focus on the movies themselves. In an interview with Variety yesterday, Film Independent president Josh Welsh addressed the concern that the Spirit Awards and the Oscars are increasingly drawing from the same pool. To put it more accurately, he shot that concern out of the sky. “Even the independent films that get recognized by the Oscars are films that still need bigger audiences,” Welsh explained. “I want more people to see Lady Bird. Or The Florida Project – I think everyone should see that movie. Within our little indie sphere everyone’s seen it and loves it, but when the Oscars are recognizing films like that or Call Me by Your Name, it’s important.”
There’s a significant distinction here between publicity for independent cinema and the publicity-as-byproduct outcome for so many Academy Award nominees. As the Variety piece notes, several of the movies nominated in multiple categories at the Spirit Awards – films featured on many year-end critical lists – are also completely shut out during the Oscar nominations. Good Time. Beach Rats. Beatriz at Dinner. Columbus. The Rider. These movies were effectively forgotten on January 23 after they failed to translate Oscar buzz into Oscar nominations. The Spirit Awards offer the best of both worlds, an opportunity to celebrate independent movies that have broken through to the mainstream – movies like Get Out and Lady Bird – while still elevating those titles that may have been left behind.
So while it may not be able to match the Oscars as a must-see television event, the Spirit Awards are the perfect opportunity for people who love independent film to get an award show they can enjoy. It’s certainly not perfect – its emphasis on writers, directors, and actors ignores some of the more technical categories that the Oscars still get right – but when the weekend is over, it’ll be it’s the Spirit Awards YouTube clips you find yourself rewatching before you go to bed.