The Little Award Show That Could : Film: Since it started in the '80s, the Independent Spirit Awards, sort of an offbeat Oscar, has gained big-name supporters. Saturday's ceremony is sold out.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Not many folks are wondering which movie will be named best picture of 1991 at the Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday.

Not many even know who the nominees are , let alone, what a Spirit Award is .

At the Spirit Awards, there are no evening gowns and no black ties. There are no miles of limos or armies of security forces.

There are no song and dance production numbers, because there are no musical categories. And there's no international television audience of 1 billion people like the Oscar show will have Monday night, because there are no TV cameras.

There are only movies and the people who make them.

So, with all these decidedly unglamorous marks against it, why then is this year's Spirit Awards party already SRO? Why are many of Hollywood's biggest studios, talent agencies and celebrities clamoring to score tickets? And how did a relatively obscure little show suddenly grow into one of the year's hottest parties?

"It's part of the whole Academy Awards weekend thing," said one veteran observer of Hollywood maneuvers. "Everyone's in town for the Oscars and the press is rushing around looking for a fresh angle."

Others say it's the show's irreverent tone in the shadow of the mighty Oscar, not to mention master of ceremonies Buck Henry's acerbic comments. Even the invitations used to say: "Dress jazzy."

These days, the show's sponsor, the Independent Features Project West, doesn't even bother to send out invitations. The event was sold out a week ago.

Last year's Spirit Awards boasted such winners as the offbeat "The Grifters," the South-Central Los Angeles melodrama "To Sleep With Anger" and "Longtime Companion," the only major feature film to date about AIDS.

And sandwiched into the Beverly Hills Hotel ballroom were the likes of Anjelica Huston, Jodie Foster and Kevin Costner, plus director Oliver Stone and Creative Artists Agency boss Michael Ovitz.

This time around the show is at the Raleigh Studios on Melrose Avenue and the best picture nominees are again the kinds of movies that moviemakers long to see produced but that few studios or individuals want to finance: "City of Hope," "Hangin' With the Homeboys," "Homicide," "My Own Private Idaho" and "Rambling Rose."

One of them will join the ranks of such previous independent best pictures as "sex, lies, and videotape," "The Grifters," "After Hours" and "Stand and Deliver."

"We very much designed the awards to coincide with the Oscars," said producer Carolyn Pfeiffer ("The Moderns," "Kiss of the Spider Woman," "Choose Me") and a board member of the IFP. "We wanted to dovetail with all the people who come to Los Angeles for the Oscars."

Pfeiffer continued: "There seems to be a genuine desire within the film community to salute and be supportive of independents and those filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Jodie Foster and Oliver Stone whose work edges toward the mainstream.

"But why this thing has caught on, I don't really know. It's part because it's lunch and not dinner. Because it's casual and not black tie. Every year it grew a little. We had to sell more tables to make more money. And we made a deliberate attempt to involve some high-profile people."

The attempt obviously paid off. In the last few weeks, organizers say they've been flooded with calls from the big and powerful seeking to buy tickets that once were given away. Now tables can cost between $5,000 and $10,000, and every major studio and talent agency reportedly has bought tickets.

Celebrities and the media flocked to last year's event, marking a sudden leap in its popularity, according to event producer, director and writer Sam O'Brien.

Now, the major TV networks are calling to bid for television rights. The IFP is resisting, but O'Brien admits the potential revenues would help the IFP finance its various programs for filmmakers. As it is, the awards luncheon is the group's biggest source of funds.

"But when you think of how other awards shows have grown and . . . the compromises that they have to make to become a great awards show, well, we're not willing to compromise."

"There's a fear of growing too large," said Pfeiffer, "that the special irreverence might get lost if we become too large of a commercial event."

"The Spirit Awards represent the roots of moviemaking," said Oscar-nominated actress and director Foster, whose own film work over the years has varied from independent to major-studio. Her 1989 performance in "Five Corners" won a best actress Spirit Award, and this Saturday she's the honorary co-chair of the event with Scorsese.

"These awards offer recognition for alternative kinds of films," said Foster. "They're about making a movie. Not about the commerciality. This is not pooh-poohing the Oscars; they're important. But they are a part of the system."

IFP board member Jeanne Lucas recalls the earliest awards five years ago, when she and producer Anne Kimmel ("Eating Raoul") had to practically beg for help from Hollywood.

"Nobody knew who we were. We could call somebody, and they would say, 'Excuse me, who are you?'

"We literally had to use every contact we could conjure up to convince these people. We would go to parties because we couldn't get agents on the phone. We'd go barging up as they would be raising their glasses and interrupt them."

Lucas remembered one reception in particular when she spotted two performers. "It was when we saw Jane Alexander and Steve Railsback . . . and I remember hanging back and eyeing them. I said to myself, 'It's now or never.'

"I just literally pushed myself between him and the bar and gave him the spiel . . . at first he wanted me to call his agent. But I said we didn't have time to do that.

"With Jane Alexander, Anne and I just flanked her and wouldn't let her move until we got her to agree to have a follow-up conversation with us."

Lucas admitted: "Once we had these two people, at least we didn't have to lie.

"But we weren't beyond telling one star that another was coming, just to try to get someone else to come."

She recalled in those years, "one of the magic names we could drop was (producer) David Puttnam's, who was always a supporter."

Among the earliest on the Spirit Awards team were Jamie Lee Curtis, Peter Coyote and the publicity firm then known as Clein & Feldman, plus the Arkansas Film Commission and Eastman Kodak. Last year, Panavision came aboard.

Not a bad beginning for a group that started in 1980 with a handful of maverick filmmakers who wanted to network. As they organized, Lucas said they established the Findie awards, or Friends of Independents. The first of those went to distributor Orion Classics and the Los Angeles-based exhibitor Laemmle Theaters.

The Spirit Awards of 1985 were the first--presented in 1986 during a luncheon at 385 North, on La Cienega Boulevard. It was like a prelude to the Oscars, with Geraldine Page winning for her performance in "The Trip to Bountiful" (she won the Oscar two nights later) and William Hurt, a Spirit Award nominee for "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (for which he won an Oscar).

The 1986 awards gave the event a real boost of mainstream credibility, when major studios and independents converged in a big way. That was the year Oliver Stone's "Platoon" won both the Spirit Award for best picture and swept the Oscars.

Then, like an underground nightclub that keeps popping up in new locations, the Spirit Awards moved for two years to the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, site of the original Academy Awards.

When the demand for tickets grew, the awards shifted to the larger room at the Beverly Hills Hotel last year, but again there was a crunch.

That necessitated this year's move to Raleigh, where O'Neil said a large tent will be erected to give the feel of an early Hollywood party. O'Neil said Raleigh is one of the last remaining independent studios, having earlier featured the work of such movie landmarks as Douglas Fairbanks, Adolph Zukor and Mary Pickford.

On Saturday, the Spirit Awards will try to echo that era, with a keynote speech by Francis Ford Coppola, and appearances by a roster of top Hollywood names. A partial list of those expected includes Robert Altman, Edward James Olmos, Martha Coolidge, John Malkovich, Diane Ladd, River Phoenix, Lily Tomlin, Edward Pressman, Anthony Hopkins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Joe Mantegna, Liam Neeson and Jacqueline Bisset.

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