Even with a shortened calendar, this year’s awards season has coalesced into a lockstep in many categories. Not just the same winners — Joaquin, Renée, Brad, Laura — but the same kinds of movies and stories being recognized again and again. Joaquin Phoenix was recently moved to acknowledge the lack of diversity among the acting nominees at the BAFTAs, where all 20 of the contenders were white, while accepting his prize for lead actor.
Not so this year at the Spirit Awards.
The lively awards show is traditionally held the day before the Academy Awards by the L.A.-based Film Independent under a big tent near the beach in Santa Monica. This year’s show will be hosted for the second time by actress and producer Aubrey Plaza. And of all the nominees at this year’s Spirit Awards, 39% are women and 22% are people of color.
Leading the way this year are “The Lighthouse” and “Uncut Gems” with five nominations each, followed by “Give Me Liberty” and “Honey Boy” with four and “Clemency,” “Hustlers,” “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” “Marriage Story” and “The Third Wife” with three.
So how is it that the Spirit Awards are recognizing a broader, more inclusive swath of films than so many other awards-giving organizations?
“Well, my cheeky but honest answer would be that with the Spirit Awards, we’re celebrating the best films of the year,” said Josh Welsh, president of Film Independent. “But beyond that, and I really do believe it’s true, the entire film industry is exclusionary, kind of in its DNA. It’s designed to be exclusionary.
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“And when Film Independent was founded close to 40 years ago,” Welsh added, “[it] was established as an open access organization ... designed for independent filmmakers and film lovers to come together and form a community and share information and resources. The Spirit Awards were born out of that same spirit — we have never been the closed-off, exclusionary boys’ club.”
The Spirit Award nominations are decided by six nominating committees — one each for the American narrative, international and documentary awards, and three more for special grants. Of the 2020 committees’ 51 members, 59% were women and 51% were people of color. Final voting for the winners is done by the more than 7,000 members of Film Independent.
“We’re giving out awards to actors and producers and casting directors, so we make sure that these people are in the room. The committees are made up of directors, writers, producers, actors, editors, cinematographers, casting directors, programmers and critics,” Setu Raval, senior manager of grants and awards at Film Independent, said of the nominations process.
Instead of blind balloting, the Spirit Award nominations are determined more like the juried prizes at major film festivals: through careful consideration and passionate discussion.
“We are looking for people that have an appetite for watching movies and who really want to be in a room and discuss with their fellow committee members to select the nominees,” Raval said. “What’s exciting is that the committee members are really taking on the mandate to celebrate innovation and uniqueness of vision and films that have original and provocative subject matter. And they really do tend to take that very seriously as they are looking at the films and discussing and coming up with their list of nominees.”
For eligibility, films must play for one week in a commercial theater in the U.S. or have played at a qualifying festival. That now includes South by Southwest and Tribeca, along with Sundance, New Directors/New Films, Telluride, Toronto and New York. There is a budget cap of $22.5 million dollars.
“It takes work and intentionality,” Welsh said of coming up with a diverse slate of nominees. “It’s not like we’re doing an award show and then at the end we say, ‘Oh wait, we need to think about diversity here.’ It is baked into our DNA from the beginning. So the way you make it happen is you have a staff that is diverse and inclusive. You have a board of directors that is diverse and inclusive. Our membership is incredibly diverse.”
“Diversity and inclusion has always been a core of our mission. It’s just part of everything we do,” said Mary Sweeney, Film Independent board chair and herself a former Spirit Award nominee for writing and producing 1999’s “The Straight Story.” “We are not hustling to set up any diversity and inclusion commissions, we are not always in a scramble to pay attention to that. All of our labs and all of our grants and all of our events are meant to be inclusive. Everybody can join.”
While some years it has seemed that the Spirit Awards were previewing the Oscars by nominating many of the same films and having some of the same winners — five of the last eight best picture Oscar winners have also taken the top prize at the Spirit Awards, and three of the Spirits’ four acting winners last year were also nominated for Oscars, though only “If Beale Street Could Talk” actress Regina King won both prizes — this year the Spirit Awards have more fully gone their own way.
Among the five best feature nominees, only “Marriage Story” is also nominated for best picture at the Oscars, with the other Spirit Award nominees being “A Hidden Life,” “Clemency,” “The Farewell” and “Uncut Gems.”
Only one nominee across four acting categories is also nominated for an Oscar — Renée Zellweger for “Judy.” She’s the heavyweight in a category that also makes space for acclaimed work by Elisabeth Moss in h“Her Smell,” Mary Kay Place for “Diane” and Alfre Woodard for “Clemency” and relatively more obscure performances from Karen Allen in “Colewell” and Hong Chau in “Driveways.”
The other acting categories include performers who saw their early Oscar buzz overcome by some of the season’s bigger titles, including Adam Sandler in “Uncut Gems,” Shia LaBeouf in “Honey Boy” and Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe in “The Lighthouse.”
And arguably the year’s most-discussed Oscar-snubbed performance, Jennifer Lopez’s widely acclaimed turn as a veteran stripper in “Hustlers,” is up for a Spirit Award in a supporting actress race populated exclusively by women of color: Lauren “Lolo” Spencer for “Give Me Liberty,” Zhao Shuzen for “The Farewell,” Taylor Russell for “Waves” and Octavia Spencer for “Luce.”
For all the talk around there being no women included in the best director nominees at the Oscars or Golden Globes, the Spirit Awards have recognized Alma Har’el for “Honey Boy” and Lorene Scafaria for “Hustlers,” along with Julius Onah for “Luce,” Robert Eggers for “The Lighthouse” and Benny and Josh Safdie for “Uncut Gems.”
According to Jacqueline Coley, editor at the website Rotten Tomatoes, those nominating committees set apart the Spirit Awards from most other awards groups — the New York-based Gotham Awards use a similar system — and create a group of nominees that feels more curated and intentional.
“The thing with the Spirit Awards is they really make that argument that the Oscars aren’t best, the Oscars are Oscars,” Coley said. “The Oscars are the determination of what around 9,000, mostly white, over 65-year-old men think are the best films of the year. And they are obviously people that are committed to cinema and they’ve achieved a high level within our industry, but they are not necessarily attuned to all of the films that come through, whether they be international, American or smaller, lower-budget, hidden gems.
“So I think the Independent Spirit Awards kind of litigate that idea and say, ‘You know, this is why we belong here. These are the films that we particularly want to highlight.’” Coley added.
That notion of best — and the standards that define such a concept — is at the heart of awards season and any push to change the concept of an “awards movie.”
“Well one thing you do to change people’s conception of what best is, is change the people who are doing the conceiving,” said Mark Harris, who writes about awards season for Vanity Fair and is the author of the book “Pictures at a Revolution,” about the 1968 Oscars. “That was the point of diversity, that a more diverse votership is going to have a different and broader definition of what’s best.
“It’s always really disappointing to hear people talk about diversity as if it’s something that is keeping them from voting for the best things,” Harris said. “But that’s a much larger problem than movie awards; you hear that in hiring all the time, that kind of entrenched prejudice, frankly. I don’t think there’s another word for it. The idea that diversity is the enemy of quality is a form of prejudice, and there’s really nothing to do but try to argue that out person by person until they finally get it.”
The Spirit Awards also stand out with separate categories honoring a first feature and first screenplay and the John Cassavetes Award that recognizes a film made for under $500,000.
“I think the goal of prognosticators and other awards givers should be to broaden the field, not to narrow it,” Harris said. “The least interesting sort of preliminary awards are the ones that boast about their ability to define or anticipate the Oscar race. And the most interesting are things like the Spirits where there are always a handful of movies in there that I’ve never even heard of.
“I really enjoy that, those movies instantly go on my list to watch or to seek out. That’s sort of the best function of movie awards to me — to point people toward great movies.”
The Spirit Awards also give three grant prizes of $25,000 each, announced in advance, to support emerging filmmakers: “The Rider” and “Swallow” producer Mollye Asher received the producers award, “Premature” director Rashaad Ernesto Green received the Someone to Watch Award and “Jaddoland” director Nadia Shihab received the Truer Than Fiction award.
And it’s the third year for the Bonnie Award, a $50,000 grant given to a midcareer female filmmaker. This year’s winner is Kelly Reichardt, who’s latest film, “First Cow,” will soon be playing in competition at the Berlin Film Festival and will be released by A24 on March 6.
Regardless of who wins, the Spirit Awards are at their best when they go their own way, bringing attention to films, filmmakers and performances that might not otherwise get such a strong spotlight. In turn, they have an opportunity to help push both awards season and the industry at large toward greater inclusivity.
Welsh puts it this way: “I think at the Spirit Awards, because the gatekeepers, the decision-makers, the people evaluating the films throughout the awards process come from different backgrounds and have different aesthetic tastes and different sensibilities and different life experiences and cultural experiences, you end up with a slate of nominations that is pretty diverse.
“I would just add one caveat to that,” Welsh said. “The mission of Film Independent is in large part to make the film industry look more like the world that we actually live in. And that work is not done.”