Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Thoughts on the Independent Spirit Nominations

My God is it that time of year already?

This morning LA-based Film Independent (or FIND) announced its nominees for the 2007 Independent Spirit Awards at an LA-friendly 8 AM PST. You’ll notice either from the weather outside or your nearest calendar that we’re not even free of November yet and they’re already rolling out the award season. Everyone get out your party hats. One does have some time to get used to these particular nominees though: the winners aren’t announced for another two months. In keeping with their status as the Academy Awards’ obnoxious little brother, the Indie Spirit Awards are held on a beach in Santa Monica the day before the Oscars which take place in late February, long after you’ve forgotten most of the films that were even released in 2007.

So why make Zach Braff and Lisa Kudrow get in front of the press and announce these stupid things now? Politics of course.

First a little background: a few years back the Independent Spirit Awards were run by an organization called IFP (or Independent Feature Project) which was created to nurture independent filmmakers by offering up seminars, workshops, occasionally funding, and networking opportunities. Filmmakers are inherently secretive and standoffish but filmmaking is collaborative by necessity. IFP attempted to bridge this gulf of personality and served as a valuable resource to upstart filmmakers looking to get their first films off the ground.

But around 2003 a rift formed between the upper levels of IFP’s management regarding the direction of the non-profit organization. Specifically, ditching the whole non-profit thing. The organization had become schizophrenic in trying to serve as both a fund-raising organization and a de-facto film school and a fissure was created. As though it had lost a turf war and had 72 hours to get out of the state (what was Bush behind this one too?), Much of the IFP staff uprooted itself from California and focused on New York City as its base of operations with satellite offices in the hinterlands of Minnesota, Seattle, and Phoenix (as well as Chicago although that one’s less of a stretch). Left in its place was the Angelino-centric Film Independent (formerly IFP-West) which was created to run the Los Angeles Film Festival (formerly the IFP-LA Film Festival) and the Independent Spirit Awards. These were two high-profile cash cows that brought national exposure to the organization but they also became the be all-end all of Film Independent; each a giant tent pole at opposite ends of the year which FIND could hang itself on.

The festival and the awards brought in enormous attention and dollars but were hardly self-sustaining and they certainly weren’t profitable. So sponsors were brought in. Such “independent-friendly” companies as Target, Acura, Pop Secret and Biloage (it’s an herbal shampoo they’re now handing out at screenings in little tubes). The LA Film Festival, abandoned its aspirations of being a mid-year Sundance and sold out. Big time. I’m talking making Transformers’ world premiere the festival’s center piece gala.

There was also a larger emphasis on expanding membership beyond filmmakers to film fans and patrons at large. FIND still holds seminars and workshops but they’re mostly set dressing. For $95 a year anyone could become a member, regardless of their aspirations behind the camera and the direction of the group steered away from nuts and bolts and collaboration and more towards guest speakers and rubbing elbows with Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. In addition to paving the way for a whole new generation of starfuckers, membership also fulfills the great, film fan fantasy of voting for the Academy Awards. Or at least the next best thing.

That’s right: the Independent Spirit Awards are decided by its membership. Ballots will be sent out in January to all 6000 FIND members, unless of course you choose to “go green” and cast your vote electronically to save paper. At its essence, the Independent Spirit Awards are nothing more than the People’s Choice Awards for people who frequent the Landmark and Laemmle’s theater chains.

As for old IFP, just because they relinquished control of the Independent Spirit Awards doesn’t mean they got the awards bug out of their system. The created their own, costal-specific awards, The Gotham Awards to hand out to deserving “independent” films. Admittedly they’ve endured some growing pains in trying to establish who it is they’re representing (two of last year’s nominees The Departed and Marie Antoinette cost a combined $130 million dollars) but they’ve also differentiated themselves by limiting the number of awards they give out as well as their emphasis on highlighting films without distribution. You might be asking yourself when this organization gives out their awards.

Tonight of course. Oh the pettiness of it all.

As for the nominations themselves, their mostly inoffensive especially once you consider FIND has imposed an arbitrary, 20-million dollar budgetary cap to nominees which precludes the involvement of such films as Atonement, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood and Gone Baby Gone, all films which are probably considered by the public at large as “indies.” It’s also worth noting that with the exception of I’m Not There, FIND’s awards have mostly ignored the films that were Gotham nominees with Sean Penn’s Into the Wild being completely shut-out and Margot at the Wedding and The Namesake having to contend themselves with a single nomination apiece in the supporting acting categories. I suspect the Dylan film only made the cut because director Todd Haynes is practically the pope of the Indie Spirit Awards (his Far From Heaven swept in 2002 and they even nominated his unwatchable Velvet Goldmine). I’m surprised that Sundance winner Grace is Gone and sex-doll romance/fairy tale Lars and the Real Girl are absent as well even if I did find the latter overly precious. I’m personally pleased that the panel resisted the urge to shower Sidney Lumet’s derivative Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead with nominations but I’m puzzled that Laura Linney wasn’t nominated for The Savages. I’m happy for surprise nominees Fred Parnes & Andrew Wagner, who I got to know while I was in Austin this past fall, for their screenplays for Starting Out in the Evening. Now if only I’d seen their film…

So full disclosure, if you can’t tell from the above graphs, I’m a Film Independent member, mostly for the rare occasions my company attends a FIND event for networking as well as the 3 to 4 free screenings they hold a month. I voted last year and I no doubt will do so this year. Last year I was doubly involved as Steel City was actually nominated so I’m pretty intimately aware with the behind the scenes process. While the membership at large picks the winner, the nominees are decided by small panels who review individual submissions. This is how fringe titles that have never played outside of festivals like Sundance and Toronto can find their way into the running. Having directly benefited from this policy I appreciate the lip service being paid to legitimately independently financed and produced filmmaking if for no other reason than the collective “huh’s” that come from Awards “gurus” like Tom O’Neil and David Poland as they try and wrap their minds around why an organization would “waste” a nomination on the likes of an Anna Kendrick for Rocket Science (who I’ve had a crush on since I saw her in Camp 4 years back) or for that matter Raymond J. Barry for Steel City.

I’m glad smaller films will have a fleeting moment in the sun even if I’m dubious to what real impact it will have on them. I also know you can lead a sycophantic film society to water but you can’t make them vote. For an organization with the word “independent” in their name, there sure is a lot of group thinking to the voting process. As a rule of thumb, films with more nominations usually do better than films with one or two categories under their belts and films that have made more money at the box office always do better than films that haven’t. Last year given the choice between Ryan Gosling’s acclaimed addiction drama Half Nelson and Guillermo del Toro’s visually stunning Pan’s Labyrinth, voters gave it to the Academy friendly Little Miss Sunshine in a 4-award sweep.

Look, voters are lazy. Hell I vote and I’m lazy. Last year FIND struck a deal with Netflix that put dvd screeners on voters’ doorsteps and even I skipped roughly a quarter of the nominated films, and I’m way more vested in independent film than most. This year they have an arrangement with B-Side Entertainment to actually stream the nominated films via the internet which has both minuses (I’m not a huge fan of watching movies on my computer) as well as plusses (I can now fast forward to the “good parts” of Lust, Caution and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead from the privacy of my room). Still I’d be lying if I said I thought I’d watch everything before all the votes are tallied.

In the meantime, I get to watch films. Lots of films. Some I’ve never seen due to lack of opportunity (for my part, I’m glad I’ll be able to watch Lake of Fire at my own leisure, with plenty of breaks built in) or because of poor word of mouth. Or to re-watch films I was underwhelmed by like I’m Not There or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly to see if I can get something out of them with repeat viewings. Or simply watching Juno over and over again until I know every line by heart. It may be a bloated, glad-handling, self-congratulatory group, but I’m a member and I’m glad to have the perks at the moment.

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