This Year’s Independent Spirit Awards Barely Differed From the Oscars — Here’s How to Fix Them

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I have to tell you, I didn’t expect Birdman to take it — Cinematography, sure, but not Best Picture. Yet I don’t think any of us were surprised when Julianne Moore finally got the recognition she deserved, and Patricia Arquette and J.K. Simmons pretty much had their awards locked up all fall. And in spite of the stiff competition, the gorgeous Polish film Ida managed to take Best Foreign Film; ditto Laura Poitras’s provocative CITIZENFOUR. What a night for movies it was… on Saturday, at the Independent Spirit Awards, which (as you can tell from this little rhetorical exercise) have gone from Oscar’s scrappier indie cousin to just another damn Oscar run-up. What’s gone wrong? And how can they fix it?

To be fair, the Spirits did deviate occasionally from the Oscars: Richard Linklater won Best Director, Dan Gilroy won Best Screenplay for Nightcrawler, and Michael Keaton won Best Actor. (And as long as we’re talking about it, that makes three that the Spirits got right and the Oscars got wrong.) And they offer up several categories of their own, geared more towards first-timers and lower budgets: the Best First Feature award (to Nightcrawler), the Best First Screenplay prize (to Justin Simien, for Dear White People), the John Cassavetes Award for a film made for under $500K (Land Ho!), and the Robert Altman award for director, casting director, and ensemble cast (given, appropriately enough, to Paul Thomas Anderson’s very Altman-esque Inherent Vice).

But for the most part, the winners — and, frequently, the nominees — matched up to the Big Show the next night, and this wasn’t the first time. Last year’s Spirits mirrored the Oscar’s Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and acting winners (all four of them); 2011’s Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Screenplay, and Best Foreign Film all matched up. (2012 was a bit of an anomaly, with Silver Linings Playbook dominating the Spirits — more on that later.)

Yet when the Spirits started, they couldn’t have been further from the Oscars. Their first Best Picture, back in 1985, was Martin Scorsese’s After Hours; Scorsese split that year’s Best Director prize with Blood Simple’s Ethan Coen. Their subsequent Best Picture winners included such decidedly un-Academy-friendly fare as River’s Edge, sex lies and videotape, The Grifters, Rambling Rose, and The Player.

But in the mid-‘90s, Oscar got more indie friendly, “indie” became harder to define, and the lines began to blur. The tenth Spirits were dominated by Pulp Fiction and Bullets Over Broadway, which racked up several Oscar nominations that year as well; Spirit winners like Fargo and Leaving Las Vegas made impressive showings at the Academy Awards. But the Spirits continued to make their own way, handing their prizes to the likes of Election, Rushmore, Chasing Amy, and Memento.

Yet as the 2000s wore on, the two awards began to match up more closely, and here we are, with the Spirits merely another float (like the Golden Globes or the SAGs) in the parade to the Oscars. The reasons aren’t hard to understand; it’s less a case of the Spirits moving towards the Oscars than the other way around, as the kind of mid-range prestige pictures that used to take up a major corner of the studio model have disappeared for more tentpoles and superheroes. As a result, the kind of movies that Oscar likes — smart, passionate, serious movies for grown-ups — are more likely to be made independently, and their budgets are more likely to fall into the under $20 million(ish) range that makes them eligible for the Spirits.

And that’s a shame, because (as those early winners prove) the Spirits could serve as the “alternate Oscars” their indie ethos and night-before-the-Oscars schedule seems to position them as — an opportunity to recognize movies and actors that aren’t just making a whistle stop on their way to the Kodak Theater. And can they change that? Your film editor humbly offers up three suggestions.

1. Lower the budget ceiling. The qualification for Independent Spirit Award consideration is simple: “Cost of completed film, including post, should be less than $20 million.” And there was a time when that number made sense — before the mid-budget movie went the way of the dinosaur. But now, that’s just too big a figure, since the new Hollywood budget model is that every movie either costs over $100 million or less than $20 million. This writer is a huge booster of Birdman, and while its spirit is certainly independent, it’s also a high-profile picture stuffed with movie stars. Yet it qualifies, because it cost $16.5 million.

So drop that number. Making it, say, $10 million would’ve kept Love Is Strange, Whiplash, and Boyhood in this year’s Best Picture race, while dropping the over $10 million Birdman and Selma (both Oscar nominees for Best Picture) and making room for, say, Dear White People and Obvious Child. And then Boyhood would’ve won.

2. Stick to it. The other problem with the Spirits’ budget guideline is the language that follows it: “Any variations are at the sole discretion of the nominating committees and Film Independent.” And that “discretion” is how, for example, the $21 million Silver Linings Playbook got five nominations, and four wins, two years ago. Let’s call a spade a spade: Silver Linings is an Oscar movie, a big crowd pleaser featuring three major movie stars, and it accordingly posted up eight Oscar nominations. It shouldn’t have been at the Spirits, where its Best Picture prize could’ve gone to the far more traditionally independent Beasts of the Southern Wild, or Best Actress to Middle of Nowhere’s Emayatzy Corinealdi.

3. Rethink the Categories. Even Josh Welsh, president of the Spirits’ presenting organization Film Independent, admits that the ceremony’s unique categories (like First Film, First Screenplay, and the Cassavetes and Altman awards) are “key to the spirit of the show.” So the Spirits could set themselves apart from the other Oscar imitators with more categories like those — a way to spotlight the pictures that don’t have a chance in hell with the more staid and conservative Oscar voters. And they could even find a way to still acknowledge Oscar flicks that are indie-ish; Indiewire’s Eric Kohn has suggested the Spirits add a “Spirit of Indie” category for your Birdmans and Silver Linings Playbooks, to give them “a place at the table without dominating it.” And that’s good advice — because right now, domination is a an apt description for a ceremony that increasingly serves as little more than an Oscar dress rehearsal.