The avalanche of advance speculation, live Twitterage and post-game analysis that surrounded yesterday’s announcement of the Independent Spirit Award nominees was indicative, perhaps, of the way the internet has amped up every stop on the ever-expanding awards trail — however minor its real-world presence — to event status. But it also proved that the Spirits are no longer as small, nor as off-the-beaten-track, as their calculatedly modest presentation would have you believe.They haven’t been for a while: for better or worse, they’re now considered as valuable (if, by their very nature, not as all-encompassing) an Oscar bellwether as any of the glitzier Globe or Guild events on the circuit.
Sasha Stone tweeted yesterday that she was struggling to keep calm ahead of the nominations, as if their unveiling carried the same Christmas-morning tingle as the Oscar nods themselves. That degree of excitement may still strike you as excessive, but even a decade ago, it was hard to imagine anyone but the actual nominees getting that worked up about the announcement. Times have changed; the Spirits now have to disguise their Hollywood clout behind a cover of hip, offhand quirk — imagine a heavily tattooed Harvey Weinstein squeezed into a pair of skinny jeans. Or perhaps you’d rather not, but you get the idea.
The degree of scrutiny and industry lobbying that attends the awards these days would have been unimaginable when the first Spirits ceremony took place nearly 28 years ago. The four (yes, four — reflecting the Oscar format wasn’t such a priority in those days) nominees for Best Picture were the Coen Brothers’ debut feature “Blood Simple,” Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours,” Joyce Chopra’s “Smooth Talk” and Peter Masterson’s “The Trip to Bountiful” scored only two Oscar nominations between them. Both belonged to “Bountiful,” whose veteran leading lady Geraldine Page became the only Spirit winner that year to repeat at the Oscars. (The only other Spirit nominees even to cross the Academy’s radar were non-US entries “Ran” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”)
It wouldn’t take long for Oscar and Spirit voters to see a little more eye-to-eye — the very next year, they agreed that Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” was the best 1986 had to offer — but they remained in largely separate universes for a good long while. To some extent, that distance has been maintained: only “The Artist” has repeated Stone’s Spirit-Oscar double in the Best Picture category. But the boundaries between them have largely melted away: in the Spirits’ first 10 years, only two of their Best Picture nominees were recognized in the Academy’s top category, compared to 16 in their most recent decade. (Yes, the expansion of the Oscar field aids this inclusiveness.) Best Actor: four in the first decade, 17 in the last. The same figures, funnily enough, go for Best Actress.
Compared yesterday’s nominee slate to that inaugural 1985 crop and most things have changed, as some stay the same. 28 years and four Oscars later, the Coens are nominated again, this time for “Inside Llewyn Davis”; the difference is that their 16th feature, unlike their first, descends upon the Spirits with a luxurious trail of Oscar buzz and industry experience, like a former prom queen dropping in on her old high school for a visit. It’s not alone: of its fellow Best Feature nominees, “12 Years a Slave,” “Nebraska” and “All is Lost” are all assured some measure of Oscar attention. Only “Frances Ha” looks likely likely to be a Spirits-only deal, and even here, its status is that of a lovable long shot — the voters’ token nod to rough-hewn independent filmmaking that isn’t Academy-flavored.
What’s changed? The Oscars, for starters — no longer as studio-bound as they used to be, they’ve lately attached a kind of preferred nobility to independently produced films that nonetheless bear the comforting varnish of familiar actors or auteurs. (Or, in the case of “The Artist,” the character of Hollywood itself.) Earlier this year, Warner Bros. and Ben Affleck’s “Argo” broke a five-year streak of notional “indies” winning the Best Picture award; ever since “American Beauty” (not itself an independent film, but one with a non-studio sensibility) became the first Toronto-reared Best Picture winner 14 years ago, independent spirit has become the Academy’s new normal.
But the Academy’s growing receptiveness to films from outside the big studios’ domain doesn’t entirely account for the relative “mainstreaming” of the Spirits’ choices — whether intentionally or otherwise, the two institutions seem more to have met each other halfway. The Spirits’ qualifying budget ceiling of $20 million, and the eligibility of starry in-house productions from outfits like Focus and The Weinstein Company, allows them to include a significant proportion of the year’s American prestige titles — particularly as franchise-fixated studios seem ever more reluctant to produce serious, adult-oriented middlebrow fare of the type that used to routinely win them Best Picture Oscars.
That makes the Oscars and the Spirits alike a refuge for tasteful, star-driven awards bait that the majors no longer want to make, which is why their tastes are increasingly indistinguishable. Scrappy but crowdpleasing thriller “Argo” took the Oscar last year, while the Weinsteins’ scrappy but crowdpleasing romantic comedy “Silver Linings Playbook” ruled the Spirits; one’s technically a studio film while the other is not, but they’re both effectively cut from the same cloth. (The indie champion wasn’t even an underdog at the Oscars — “Playbook” actually secured more Oscar nominations than “Argo.”) David O. Russell’s film has ample offbeat charm, but as representatives of pioneering, against-the-grain Amerindie spirit go, it’s not exactly “My Own Private Idaho.”
Fox Searchlight and Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” looks set to dominate this year’s Spirits, and may well join “Platoon” and “The Artist” by nabbing the Oscar as well. On the one hand, that’d be fair enough — it’s a fearless work from a defiantly singular artist that no major studio would ever have touched with a 10-foot pole. Searchlight gambled on Steve McQueen two years ago to little financial or Oscar gain on “Shame” two years ago, and this is their reward; it’s inarguably an independent film, and the fact that it’s set to receive a bushel of Oscar nominations says more for the growth of the industry than it does against the integrity of the Spirit Awards.
And yet, as household-name stars like Robert Redford, Matthew McConaughey and Cate Blanchett — all duly recognized for taking a chance (and a pay cut) on more specialized projects — take their place at the table, it’s fair to wonder if the Spirits are beginning to outgrow their own purpose. They were established in order to give recognition to the outstanding independent films that were going largely unnoticed by the studio-centred Academy. Now that mid-range independent cinema has grown in profile and commercial viability to the extent that the Oscars embrace it on a near-annual basis, there are several lower tiers of outstanding indies that are now going unnoticed even by the Spirits.
The Spirits tacitly acknowledged this hypocrisy in 1999 by creating the John Cassavetes Award for films with a budget of $500,000 or less. This year, as usual, the five nominees (including former In Contention columnist Chad Hartigan’s “This Is Martin Bonner”) are wholly commendable works, worthy of recognition in multiple categories, that nonetheless boast only three extra nominations between them. Too modest to compete with the comparatively glossy likes of “Nebraska” or “All is Lost” in the top categories, these true independents end up ghettoized. (Same goes for four of the Best First Feature nominees — the excellent “Concussion” and “Blue Caprice” among them — all doomed to lose to the Weinsteins’ crossover contender “Fruitvale Station.”)
Still, at least they aren’t frozen out of the event entirely, like any number of remarkable, critically championed indies that haven’t the muscle to contend here, let alone at the Oscars. I had hoped Andrew Dosunmu’s exquisite “Mother of George” might find some love here, but the competition for micro-indies is just too narrow; on the larger end of the scale, David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” (recognized with a single cinematography nod) were also overlooked, leaving their many devotees disappointed.
It feels like we may have passed the point where independents as aggressively anti-mainstream as Abel Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant,” John McNaughton’s “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” or Todd Haynes’ “[Safe]” could score Best Feature nods at the Spirits. One might advocate another, more exclusive indie ceremony, with a lower budget limit and more stringent requirements — but the line, I sense, has been forever blurred, and even if it’s come at the cost of the Spirits’ sense of danger, there’s much to celebrate in that fact. Independence, intangible and increasingly undefinable as it may be, must remain its own greatest reward.