MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

20W2O: Rebooting The Independent Spirit Awards


I’ve been going on about this for a lonnnng time (here’s a 2005 blip), but The Independent Spirit Awards have jumped the shark.

There was nothing really wrong with the show yesterday. But with due respect to some lovely moments with some lovely talent, to call the show “vanilla” would be an insult to vanilla.

Really, the show jumped the shark over three years, 2008 – 2010. The show was relegated to tape-delay status by IFC. The cap for movies to qualify was set at $20 million. And the audience, who was lauded as the coolest, hippest, most passionate group of filmmakers and film lovers on the scene, stopped paying attention to the show in the tent.

In that three-year stretch, the show suffered the rain in the Santa Monica tent that left the ground soaking wet, drips hitting tables, and a windy chill blowing through the tent, sending a significant portion of the audience unwilling to focus and leaving early. There was also the end of the IFC-sponsored afterparty, which was considered by many the highlight of day. Then there was the move downtown to the roof of the parking garage next to LA Live… where the sightlines were horrible and the sound even worse. The return to Santa Monica in 2011 was lauded, but the show has never really recovered.

Dawn Hudson, for whom the Spirit Awards were always top priority at IFP/West, later renamed FIND when the group broke away from IFP so as not to share the literal wealth coming from the show, left shortly after the 2011 show. But as noted, the problems happened under her watch. Nothing has really changed since her exit.

Perhaps the peak for the Independent Spirit Awards was 2005, when Brokeback Mountain won Best Picture and it felt like a comfort against The Academy, where Crash won the day. It was the height of “win on Saturday, lose on Sunday” as well. There were a lot of people who would go on to lose the next evening who got their moment to shine. There was still some palpable excitement in the tent. And it was live.

in 2007, the LA Times media bombed the awards with a Saturday morning piece shredding the awards for spending most of its money on the award show and film festival. The piece also outed Dawn Hudson’s salary, $1,500-a-seat tables at the award show, and other unmentionables. Even wilder, the LA Times was the lead sponsor of FIND’s film festival.

But all of the micro issues are secondary to the macro issue… why doesn’t the show quite work anymore?

Well… it has the same problems (and many of the strengths) that The Oscars has, but without the cachet of The Oscars.

If Saturday is, mostly, a reflection of Sunday, why watch on Saturday? The reason used to be that it was such a loose, open show. But that has changed. Things are loose, but for the sake of TV, there needs to be structure and the show is built to be familiar to the widest possible audience. The sing-a-longs for the Best Picture nominees played out after a while, but the spirit of those moments has not been replaced with something equally goofy and slightly dangerous and spirited. And instead of it feeling like you were seeing award speeches that would probably not be given again a night later, it now feels like another stop on the very long trail to the award they really want to win… Oscar.

Was Sarah Silverman’s vagina the tipping point for the Independent Spirit Awards? Could be. It was in 2007 and when she went there in her opening monologue, you could feel in the tent that a line had been crossed for the live audience. the crowd seemed embarrassed, not independent. There was something to lose.

So how can one fix The Independent Spirit Awards?

My position has long been that truly independent films need to be celebrated. And not just the 3 or 4 films that have been embraced by the ISA nominating crowd (which has been a pretty closed circle for a very long time). What is independent film in 2014? This show is hardly the only place wrestling with the issue and failing to find an answer. But just continuing down the same path will lead nowhere.

Coming up with an answer is not easy and I feel a little silly just spitballing it here at my computer. But for the sake of argument, I will…

Independent cinema is now a few things. There is “independent-minded” cinema. And all the Oscar nominees that were nominated by the ISAs yesterday qualify. So does Gravity, which has a much bigger budget, but is made by a serious indie-minded filmmaker and broke new ground in presentation.

There are “true indies,” which are films distributed by companies not affiliated in any way with the 6 MPAA member major studios (MGM makes 7, but…) or Weinstein or Summitsgate. Bigger budgets sometimes get distributed and/or funded by these companies, but they are rare.

And there are those movies that are really out there on the limb, the “hard core” indies. $2 million and under. Happy to be alive. Anxious to get to the next movie.

How does a show that wants to be on television manage of honor all three of these kinds of films?

Maybe something like a 3-tier award. Wouldn’t it have been interesting to see Steve McQueen win, then hand out the next Best Director award to, say, Destin Cretton (or James Ponsoldt), then have the two of them hand the third award to, say, David Lowery (or Shane Carruth)?

Wouldn’t it serve the show and independent film better for Lupita Nyong’o to then bring up Juno Temple and for them to bring up Yolonda Ross?

I’m sure some of you are getting out your protractors and trying to figure out whether you can really separate The Spectacular Now from Upstream Color or Afternoon Delight. And in specific terms, you may have a point. But to let the very specific details get in the way of any ideas (including yours) about how to celebrate independent cinema more fully each year would be unhelpful. Lines have to be drawn. There will always be exceptions that frustrate. But that is not the point.

My other feeling about doing something like having the winner of one “level” immediately hand out the award for the next level is that it takes the show out of the headspace of the traditional award show… “the winner is,” followed by “reflective speech”…. but it also allows for big burst of emotion and an experience shared between more than one person aspiring to the same artistic goals in that moment. Isn’t that what it is really all supposed to be about, not just winning and losing and how this will all affect—which it can’t—the Oscars the next day?

And how would this change the TV show? Well, in theory, a better show makes a more popular show. Doesn’t it make sense for “The Indie Show” to be really break out of the box. Have all the celebrity power that has become the standard for the Indie Spirits, but also embrace the less hugely celebrated indies? And FIND, for its part, cannot allow embarrassments, like cutting out documentary from the TV show… or a big chunk of Ryan Coogler’s speech. That is just unacceptable. If that makes IFC unhappy, take it to your audience… give the people who come to the tent something to rally around again. Don’t just do the same old thing just because it’s safe.

Speaking of which, the popular vote shit has to go. (To vote for Indie Spirits, you become a $75/yr member of —made back easily in free screenings—and you’re a voter.) Sorry, but if the audience knows who is going to win before they are going to win every single award for a film with distribution, the show kinda sucks. I am thrilled for 12 Years A Slave. And McConaughey and Blanchett, etc, etc, but I’ve already been to your first 3 bar mitzvahs this year.

Tiering awards would fix some of the popularity contest issues, but putting together a list of 2000 as your “Indie Academy” is not brain surgery. Besides making the event more inclusive of the indie community, it would give some chance of something other than popular familiarity winning the day.

Also, when does the Indie Spirit vote actually happen. The announce nominations in early December. Why not vote before Oscar nominations come out, so there is a chance of something other than a robotic duplication of the trending leaders in each category?

In terms of the day itself, everyone loves the pre-game cocktail thing… so just shove the show into a theater and do the cocktails before and after. You’re already most of the way there. There used to be a proper lunch, now there were trays of finger foods. Not complaining about the grub, but it’s not really a lunch anymore, is it? And there weren’t even gift bags this year. Fine. I’m okay with that. But why take all the disadvantages of being in a tent if there isn’t really a beach feel to it anymore? And there isn’t. Now it’s just a cool location, where you go through the same security and drama and separation from the beach as you would at any theater. Can’t charge as much for a theater seat as for a table seat? Figure it out.

And if you disagree with me about the ideas I am offering… GREAT! Offer some more of your own. I am not saying that I have The Answer. I am just saying that the question needs to be asked.

I feel, in many ways, the exact opposite about The Oscars. The reason that The Oscars is still on top of the award show food chain is because it is pretentious and more mature and arrogant and austere. That is the brand. That is what we want. Even the idiotic Golden Globes is an event that is stable and on the upswing because it knows what it is and delivers to a pretty big audience.

The Independent Spirit Awards brand was worn out about the same time the indie movement hit the wall. Now, people know it is on the beach and supposedly more loose, but whatever you offer in the years to come can become what the show’s brand is moving forward. And unlike the Broadcast Film Critics and other groups just trying to be the same as Big Daddy, Indie Spirits has the freedom to be cooler, more thoughtful, and more movie loving.

It was nice to see so many people I have known for so many years out there and dressed up and swigging drinks yesterday. But the feeling has changed. It’s time to recognize this and really take a step a way and think, “What would we do with this if we didn’t have this old template we feel obliged not to break or even bend as we move forward.” Because if time, there won’t even be a tape delayed show worth doing for IFC. It will become the Variety/Patron/ViSA Awards on the day before the Oscars with all of your favorite soon-to-be Oscar winners hanging out of a beautifully designed stage at some backlot, smoking joints while The McConaissance plays the bongos… and it will be the hot ticket on The Comcast Network and we will have lost the great potentiality of having a broadcast show that is serious about celebrating all of indie film.

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One Response to “20W2O: Rebooting The Independent Spirit Awards”

  1. Laura says:

    i had to turn them off when i realized Kathryn Hahn wasn’t nominated for Afternoon Delight…I understand the Cate Blanchett love, but not even nominated?

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon