Make room for Indie Spirit Awards, Oscar's maverick cousin

Film Independent Spirit Awards kick off Oscars weekend with a live telecast Saturday from Santa Monica

The Spirit Awards. The Independent Spirit Awards. The Indie Spirits. It's an awards show so casual-cool that organizers don't even much mind what you call it.

The Film Independent Spirit Awards, as they are officially known to recognize the Los Angeles-based nonprofit arts organization Film Independent, celebrate their 30th anniversary this year. Taking place in a tent next to the beach in Santa Monica on a Saturday afternoon, the Spirit Awards may recognize some of the same talent as the Oscars, but it is with a purposeful air of relaxed irreverence in contrast to the enforced solemnity of the ceremony on Sunday. Even before the online viral era, unconventional acceptance speeches had a way of becoming instant classics.

This year finds the Spirit Award nominees again representing both a strong selection of films also nominated for the Oscars, including "Birdman," "Boyhood," "Whiplash" and "Selma," while also spotlighting films such as "Love Is Strange," "Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter" "Only Lovers Left Alive," "Obvious Child" or "A Most Violent Year." Where actress Marion Cotillard is nominated for lead actress at the Oscars for her role in the Belgian film "Two Days, One Night," at the Spirit Awards she is nominated for the period drama "The Immigrant."

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"I feel like the Spirit Awards, the Film Independent Spirit Awards" – even Josh Welsh, president of Film Independent, catches himself on the full name – "are more important today really than they ever have been. This is an awards show about celebrating independent artistry in filmmaking, and that is a sector of creativity that needs support and encouragement and champions more than ever. So to me the show is very important, a part of Film Independent's year-round mission to build the audience for independent film."

Among the films recognized in the first year of the Spirit Awards were Martin Scorsese's punky comedy "After Hours" and Joel and Ethan Coen's debut "Blood Simple." Since then a veritable who's who of rising talent has been recognized by the awards, including filmmakers Spike Lee, Gus Van Sant, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Ang Lee, Sofia Coppola, David O. Russell, Whit Stillman, Martha Coolidge and Spike Jonze, many at the earliest stages of their careers.

The awards are voted on by the membership of Film Independent. Currently at around 5,500 people, membership is open to anyone and begins at $95. Nominations, which are announced in late November, are decided upon by six select committees made up of people from the independent film community.

Eligibility is determined by "uniqueness of vision, original, provocative subject matter, economy of means and percentage of financing from independent sources." There is no strict budget cap, though there is an unofficial ceiling of $20 million.

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As indie-influenced productions have overtaken the Academy Awards, recent Spirit Award winners such as "12 Years a Slave" and "The Artist" have also been handed Oscars for best picture and last year all four acting prizes were the same on Saturday and Sunday.

This has led to an ongoing conversation as to whether the Spirit Awards, in nominations and voting, are chasing after the same films as the Oscars or if it is the mainstream tastes of the academy that have moved closer to those of the Spirits. What really is the independent spirit the Spirit Awards are meant to recognize, anyway?

"I think they mean now what they have for many years, which is a place that through these 30 years has supported independent creativity in filmmaking and the voice of independent filmmakers," said Mary Sweeney, chair of the board of directors of Film Independent, which also puts on the Los Angeles Film Festival, educational programs and offers support for filmmakers. "That's what this is in celebration of and that has never changed. What's changed really, radically, is that the Oscars have changed very much. So they're also looking for the voices of independent, creative filmmakers to celebrate."

"I will confess it sometimes does drive me crazy when someone says that we're chasing the Oscars," said Welsh. "We are before them. We're not psychic."

The Spirit Awards have been televised on IFC since 1996. Unlike in recent years, this year the show will be broadcast live, which could add to the air of excitement in the room. The acceptance speeches at the Spirit Awards have a history of going way off-script, from the wayward, emotional rambles of Ally Sheedy, Mickey Rourke or Jared Leto to the sweetly endearing comments of Matthew McConaughey and Michelle Williams.

In winning best first screenplay for "Safety Not Guaranteed" in 2013, Derek Connolly practically stole the show with a long, excited, perhaps slightly inebriated, speech.

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The awards were hosted for a number of years early on by writer Buck Henry. In 1992 Jodie Foster delivered a keynote speech titled "The Scum-Sucking Vampire Pig Theory of Hollywood." John Waters, first as a keynote speaker and then over a number of years as host, captured the endearing irreverence that has become the spirit of the show, and has since become something of host emeritus.

"They always treat me like Bob Hope," said Waters, nominated for "Hairspray" in 1989 but who has never actually won a Spirit Award.

This year's show will be hosted by Fred Armisen, costar, co-writer and co-creator of the popular IFC show "Portlandia," and actress Kristen Bell.

"I think the mix of the familiar with the unknown is what makes it so interesting," said Jennifer Caserta, president and general manager of IFC. "It's not just a preface to what happens on Sunday at the Oscars. It's really a mix of both worlds."

This year in particular the awards could say a lot about how the voting members of Film Independent see themselves. While much media attention was given to the fact that "Selma" only received two Oscar nominations, at the Spirit Awards it was nominated for best feature, director, male lead, supporting female and cinematography.

"It's a diverse membership in every way," said Sweeney. "There's the full range, there are people who are like 'I'm not voting for that, that's going to win the Academy Award.' And other people who want to vote for something because it's their favorite. Some people only want to vote for the smaller films."

Just two years ago, director Ava DuVernay won the John Cassavetes award for a film made for under $500,000 for "Middle Of Nowhere" and this year is nominated in the main categories with "Selma." Richard Linklater, nominated this year for directing "Boyhood," was nominated in the same category for his debut feature "Slacker" in 1992.

Also setting apart the Spirit Awards from the many other awards shows is that they give away actual money. The winners of the Someone to Watch Award, the Producers Award and the documentary Truer Than Fiction Award each receive a $25,000 unrestricted grant.

The Spirit Awards also continue to present the first feature, first screenplay and John Cassavetes prizes as part of the main show, bringing newcomers and lesser-known faces onto the stage for a moment in the spotlight.

"It puts it out there to people that next year this could be you," said Sweeney. "Obviously the big stars are a huge draw, but I think there are a lot of people who are genuinely inspired by the unknown people who get up there and get an award."

Thirty years in, as the landscape of independent cinema is undergoing another period of change and renewal, the Spirit Awards have become a constant, no matter what you call them. Winners get excited, schmoozers do their thing and there is always grumbling that it used to be better.

"The show itself does not seem so different to me," said Waters. "It's always been irreverent. It's always been a lot more casual. But it's not something that people don't care about. People care if they win."

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