Film Independent’s co-chairmen Sean McManus and Josh Welsh on their first year behind the Spirit Awards

In less than 24 hours, the 27th Independent Spirit Awards will be handed out at the beach in Santa Monica, CA and the independent film world will celebrate yet another year of artistic achievement.  What many also don’t know is that the Spirit Awards are the biggest yearly fundraiser for Film Independent, a non-profit organization which runs the Spirits, numerous educational and industry events across the country as well as the annual LA Film Festival.

[Full disclosure, HitFix is an official sponsor of the Independent Spirit Awards and Film Independent’s Director’s Close-Up Series.]

This past year, longtime executive director Dawn Hudson moved onward and upward as the new CEO of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (where it’s been a bumpy road so far) and Film Independent promoted Sean McManus and Josh Welsh to the positions of co-president.  I jumped on the phone with McManus and Welsh last week to talk about this year’s Spirits and what changes we might expect with this year’s LA Film Festival. And, probably to their surprise, I brought up the increasingly political committees picking the Spirit nominees.  

Awards Campaign: In terms of this year’s show, what can people look for that is going to be different from past programs?  Have you guys made any changes that you always wanted to make that you could finally make?

Sean McManus:
Well, we got Seth Rogen.  We”re really excited about Seth as our host.  I mean he”s brilliant and he”s funny and he”s smart and but he”s also organic to the show in that he”s nominated for ’50/50.’  That”s in the best feature category.

Awards Campaign: How did you guys approach him?  How did that all sort of come about?

Sean McManus: Well, we did not.  We have a fabulous producer, executive producer of the Spirit Awards.  Her name is Diana Zahn-Storey and she has been gone for the last two years at her own event production company and we were able to convince her to come back to the Spirit Awards last fall thank God because I don”t know even know how many Spirit Awards [she’s got] under her belt.  I think she”s been producing the show since like 1991 or “92 and she is the one who got Seth locked in as our host.

Interviewer: That”s impressive.  Hopefully she”ll stay around for awhile.

Sean McManus: We hope so.  She is fantastic.  She knows the independent film community inside and out.  She knows the Spirit Awards itself upside and down and spends so much time thinking about every single aspect of the event itself and the experience of all of our guests and our nominees and the event is also the annual fundraising gala for Film Independent and our programs.  It funds every program that we do throughout the year for independent filmmakers, but she”s also very savvy in terms of what makes good television and the entertainment value and brings a perspective of both the event side and the television side that is going to I think really attract a lot of viewers to the show and our broadcast in addition to being that great experience that has become so meaningful and celebratory and irreverent and casual for the guests that are actually down at the beach.

Awards Campaign: Obviously you want the show to go off without a hitch and you want the artists to be recognized, but when you think of it from a bigger picture, what’s the most important thing you want the show to do? Do you want the people in the audience to have a good time? Or, do you look at it as a publicity mechanism to get these movies and filmmakers to a bigger audience?  And you can”t say all of them.  You have to pick one.

Josh Welsh:  Greg, you”re making us choose between like our favorite things.

Sean McManus:  I’ll choose one.  You choose the other.  Honestly Greg I mean really and truthfully it is both because the Spirit Awards has always been a really run irreverent show, but at the same time we”re celebrating the best independent film over the last year and [at] Film Independent we are about film as art and we are highlighting films like ‘Drive’ and ‘Beginners’ and ‘The Descendants’ as well as films made for basically a nickel, the films that we celebrate with our John Cassavettes award.  Films like ‘Pariah’ by amazing first-time directors, ‘Circumstance,’ ‘The Dynamiter.’  There are the bigger films like ‘The Descendents’ — they”re the best of the year, but we also are drawing attention to the smaller films that haven”t gotten enough attention and we want to help them make it out into the world more than they already have.  

Josh Welsh: So, in affect the award show we are really trying to do both and both of those are the overall mission of Film Independent.  I think we”re the only awards ceremony that has categories like best first feature and categories like the John Cassavetes Award, which is for the best film made for under half a million dollars and a category called best first screenplay and part of the goal of the Spirit Awards is to bring really talented artists into the spotlight and put them on the radar of the film industry and of the film loving public and it”s part of the reason that we announce our nominees so early.  I mean we announce our nominees right after Thanksgiving because so [many of] these films don”t have huge marketing budgets, so getting a Spirit Award nomination, being able to call yourself a Spirit Award nominee for three months really helps those films and those filmmakers kind of get into the spotlight and into the consciousness of the industry in a much more visible way.  

Sean McManus: Part of our mission at Film Independent is to help emerging artists, but like Josh is saying it”s not just emerging artists.  We”re here in the middle of Los Angeles.  Our organization is accessible to all artists whether you”re a first time filmmaker or an established filmmaker that”s worked in the studio system and then wants to make your own independent film outside of the studio system and we really represent the creative community here and the Spirit Award acknowledges and includes those filmmakers as well.

Awards Campaign:  Right and you actually helped me because you just segued to my first tough question. I even spoken to other reporters, critics and executives in the industry who were sort of shocked that ‘Like Crazy’, a film shot in Los Angeles, a Southern California filmmaker, a film that won the Grand Jury Prize and the best actress honor at the Sundance Film Festival did not get one nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards.  It”s sort of a crime to many of us and my question is have you thought at all about changing how the nominees are selected because when you look at those committees they seem a little political. They are so small you get one person on there and strange things are going to happen. Since you have so many members in your organization that see films all across the country at film festivals and theaters, is there any consideration to changing the initial part of the nomination process?

Sean McManus: I mean I’ll say that every year after the Spirit Awards for as long as I can remember we sit down with our board and we talk about the Spirit Awards and what could be improved and what worked and the eligibility, if the rules are all part of that and so it happens every single year and we will do that again this year.

Josh Welsh: I”d like to add to that.  The other thing that happens every single year is there is always a film or a couple of films that do or don”t get nominations that trigger some controversy.  People are like this film won at this festival and this festival, why didn”t it get a Spirit Award nomination and that”s just it”s kind of the nature of the beast every time you put out a list.

Awards Campaign: I know, but come on guys.  When is the last time the grand jury prize winner at Sundance didn”t get one Spirit nod?  I bet you”d be surprised.  

[Note: The last time was in 1994 when Bryan Singer’s “Public Access,” which tied with “Ruby in Paradise” for the Grand Jury Prize – Dramatic did not land a single nod. “Paradise” landed six and Ashley Judd took hope the actress prize. That’s 17 straight years. 1993 was the last year Sundance’s top drama went nomination-less at the Spirits.]

Sean McManus:  We know Drake and actually ‘Like Crazy’ opened our Film Independent Forum last October and it was so great to hang out with Drake and he did a great Q&A after the screening and I love the film and I have certainly my own taste in terms of what I love and what I might not love and you know what, everyone in the world is allowed to have those tastes.  So, there are only so many films that can get nominated and it is an independent committee that chooses the nominations.  In the American Narrative competitions, in those categories as well as the best international film category, there is a separate committee for best documentary and then we have our now four filmmaker grants that we award.  It”s about $115,000 that we have given so far at this year”s Spirit Awards and there are committees for each of those and they”re all independent committees.  So it”s not like one of us has a vote or anything on those committees.

Awards Campaign:  Let’s go back to the show because the show is always exciting and now that you guys come on board it”s your baby. to play with and to have fun with and to make bigger and better and make changes, etc.  Have you thought about doing anything sort of different?  Is there anything that you think you might want to experiment with in the future?

Sean McManus:  Well I”ll say this.  We have done like a little experimenting since our 25th anniversary that year and that-and we”ve learned some things that work and we”ve learned some things that don”t work. It’s really helped us for the last couple of years hone in on what does work best and what doesn”t.  When we went downtown that was for our 25th anniversary and I got to tell you being downtown that year and seeing what the LA Live campus is like was a big light bulb for us because even though it didn”t work for the Spirit Awards what it did do is it allowed us to feel just a little more at ease as we moved the Los Angeles Film Festival, which is another program that we produce, downtown. The facilities at LA Live, the Regal Cinemas and on the event deck and with the KIA Plaza and the hotels and whatnot have been so fantastic in terms of [presenting a] world class film festival that Los Angeles deserves.  So, there was a great benefit that came out of that.  A couple of the other things that we did in that 25th anniversary year is that was the first year that we did a reception, a brunch for all the nominees in the middle of January and gave the filmmakers that we give cash grants to kind of their own little awards ceremony and that”s only grown.  That 25th anniversary year we also did our first online arrival show and we”ve been doing it ever since and it”s only been getting bigger and bigger and this year we”ll be doing a live online arrival show with Yahoo distributing it.  

Josh Welsh: Everyone loves going to the beach.  Who comes to Los Angeles and doesn”t like coming to the beach?  And we love having the independent spirit, but Film Independent Spirit Awards was at the beach and so we”re back at the beach and we”re really excited to be back there and the event.  We”re going to have our luncheon during the day, but we”re going to have our broadcast of the show in prime time on IFC at 10:00 PM, which is when there are more people that will actually tune in to watch the Spirit Awards and that year that we moved downtown was the first year that we tried that and it worked really well.  

Awards Campaign: So no secret plans that you guys have been always just dreaming to do now that you guys are totally in charge.

Josh Welsh: Well, Sean and I have that dance number we’ve always wanted to do. (Laughs.)

Interviewer: I did want to ask about the film festival because I think when you guys moved to downtown it actually helped make it even more in the consciousness of the film community, which you wouldn”t necessarily have expected.  Last year you guys got really lucky with Richard Linkletter”s ‘Bernie’ on opening night which was a rare world premiere without distribution from a highly respected director. As the film festival grows what specific goals do you have for it?  

Josh Welsh: We want it to be the festival for the city of Los Angeles.  This is a state that deserves a world class festival.  There are a lot of good festivals here, but we really want this to grow and become the festival for the entire city and where the programming should reflect the diversity of the city.  Because we”re in Los Angeles the entire entertainment industry is based here, so I think you can expect to see more music in the festival and more musical programming as part of what goes on during the festival with Stephanie Allain at the helm and again being downtown is perfect for that.  

Sean McManus: You know Stephanie is our brand new LA film festival director.  She is fantastic and David Ansen is our artistic director and has been for a couple of years now and we just have a great programming team and so they”re the real drivers for the Los Angeles Film Festival, but we aren”t into copycatting anybody.  We are into creating something unique. The Los Angeles Film Festival is a public film festival.  You don”t have to be an industry person that wears a badge to be able to purchase a ticket to attend it.  Everyone is invited and inclusiveness and like I said before, accessibility are just some of our mantras.  They are values that we live by.

Look for complete coverage of the 2012 Independent Spirit Awards Saturday on HitFix.


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