Two of the year's most celebrated independent films, "In the Bedroom," and "Memento," won honors Saturday at the 2002 Independent Spirit Awards.
The event was sponsored by the Independent Feature Project West, a nonprofit organization for filmmakers, and held under a large tent on the beach in Santa Monica.
What started out nearly 20 years ago as a small gathering in a Westside restaurant to honor films not produced by the major Hollywood studios has ballooned into a media event with fans standing outside the roped-off area waving to the stars and calling out their names in hopes of recognition.
Each year the event grows larger and seemingly more mainstream: Nicole Kidman and Ethan Hawke presented awards this year.
As guests ate poached salmon and a goat cheese and lentil salad, host John Waters reminded the audience what sets independent film apart from mainstream studio fare. He said that every day in America, at least one theater showing an independent film sits completely empty, a place where "no one cares" how much work was put into making a movie.
He noted that without video, many independent films would never emerge as underground favorites.
"A few kids in the sticks still remember me as being their first bad influence, and for that I have to thank video," said the director of such cult classics as "Pink Flamingos."
The big winners Saturday exemplify how word of mouth can still be a powerful way to get people to see movies. Both "Memento" and "In the Bedroom" were small movies that at first were shown only in a few theaters, but eventually gained a broad audience thanks to positive reviews and strong word of mouth.
"Memento," a mystery thriller about a man whose memory is erased by a traumatic event, worked its way backward with a difficult plot structure that was so unconventional all studios passed on it.
Saturday's best feature film win was a sweet reward for the movie's producers, two sisters from the San Fernando Valley, Jennifer and Suzanne Todd.
"This is a film we were so proud of, and nobody wanted to distribute," said Suzanne, adding: "You should follow your dreams and follow your passions. Like Jen and I, you could be two little sisters from the Valley and have some of your dreams come true."
The movie also won best screenplay and best director for Christopher Nolan and best supporting female for Carrie-Anne Moss.
Nolan said that without a big distributor or a big-money marketing campaign behind the movie, he was extremely grateful to film lovers who made it successful.
"Our film, perhaps more than any other, benefited from people's willingness to see something a little different," he said.
'In the Bedroom' Wins Top Acting Awards
"In the Bedroom," a little-known film when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last year, also won several awards.
The movie, which has received Academy Award nominations for best film, best actress for Sissy Spacek, best actor for Tom Wilkinson and best supporting actress for Marisa Tomei, was eventually distributed by Miramax at Sundance.
The film won best first feature Saturday for actor-turned-director Todd Field. Set in a small New England town, it is a drama about a family that slowly disintegrates after suffering a tragedy.
Commenting on the tendency for independent films to be a little on the dark and heavy side, Field said his movie was a "very, very hard film to get made.... It's not a terribly sexy film.... Getting your first film made is like trying to climb Mt. Everest with three pickup trucks on your back."
Spacek won best female lead for her performance in the movie. The veteran actress, who received an Academy Award in 1981 for "Coal Miner's Daughter," said she was thrilled to return to the independent film world, where she began her career.
"This picture was really like coming home," she said. "I want to say to all of you independent filmmakers out there, it's not the size of the dog in the fight that matters but the size of the fight in the dog."
Her co-star and winner of best male lead, Wilkinson said Saturday that the award made the weekend memorable. "Anything that happens [today at the Oscars] will be an anticlimax," he said.
Steve Buscemi won for best supporting male in "Ghost World." Best first screenplay went to the writers of "Ghost World," Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff.
The John Cassavetes award for best feature made for less than $500,000 went to brothers Michael and Mark Polish for "Jackpot." Paul Franklin Dano received the best debut performance award for "L.I.E."
Best foreign film went to France's "Amelie," which is also nominated for several Oscars, including best foreign language film. "Dogtown and z-boys" won for best documentary, and the Truer than Fiction award for the most notable emerging director was presented to Monteith McCollum for "Hybrid."
Peter Deming won best cinematography for David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive." The producers award went to Rene Bastian and Linda Moran, who produced "Martin and Orloff" and "L.I.E."
Debra Eisenstadt received the Someone to Watch award for up-and-coming directors for "Daydream Believer."