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Many meanings of 'indie'

The Spirit Awards honor the divergent interests that make up independent film.

February 21, 2007|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

Like a word that starts to sound funny after being said too many times, the notion of "independent film" initially seems simple and yet becomes hazier and hazier the harder one tries to define it.

Whether based on sources of financing, as Film Independent originally did with the Spirit Awards, or a combination of budget and aesthetics, as it does now, the idea of "independent film" is undergoing a constant evolution and redefinition.

Coming as it does the day before the Academy Awards, the Spirit Awards gala is often seen as some sort of consolation prize for Oscar also-rans, particularly in light of last year, when the two shows shared many nominated films, including "Brokeback Mountain," "Capote" and "Good Night, and Good Luck." So when the Spirit Award nominees were announced in late November, with "The Dead Girl" sharing space with "Little Miss Sunshine" and Forest Whitaker being recognized for his role in "American Gun" and not "The Last King of Scotland," it had the feeling of sending a message that the awards were focusing on the little guys.

"I wish we could claim it as a statement of purpose," said Dawn Hudson, executive director of Film Independent, "but it is absolutely not. The nominating committee procedures have been essentially the same for 22 years."

The Spirit Awards is the rare occasion when so many of the divergent interests that nevertheless fall under the rubric of "independent film" find themselves together, literally, under the same tent. Corporate-funded mini-moguls rub shoulders with self-financing scrappers during the ceremony on the beach in Santa Monica. This year's show, which Sarah Silverman will host, will be broadcast live on the Independent Film Channel, beginning at 2 p.m. Saturday, with a rebroadcast at 10 p.m. on AMC.

For a filmmaker such as Hilary Brougher, writer and director of "Stephanie Daley," the Spirit Awards serve as a way to obtain some free advertising and, it is hoped, help gain the attention of a broader audience. Amber Tamblyn is nominated for a Spirit Award in the best supporting female category for her role as the title character. The film, which was made for less than $1 million, will have a theatrical release in April, for which the nomination is already helping to lay the groundwork.

"People keep forwarding things to me; it's getting some nice blog buzz from members who look at the films and vote," says Brougher by phone from her home in New York City. "Their membership is a great base for word-of-mouth.

"I'm thrilled with the nomination and the idea of the Spirits because it says that us little films that exist in different economic realities do have some wonderful work going on too. People seem very excited about it, and anything that gets people excited is a good thing when you don't have a giant press budget or can't afford an Oscar campaign."

Films must fall beneath a budget cap of $20 million to be considered eligible for the Spirits. (Hudson says they take submitting producers on their word regarding budgets, so as to avoid being "the financing police.") Members of three nominating subcommittees watch countless films and then narrow down their decisions through discussions and voting. Once the nominations are announced, final voting is done by Film Independent's membership at large, which is open to anyone who joins the organization. This year 41 films received nominations.

"At the end we should have a slate of films that represent the wide spectrum of independent filmmaking," says Hudson of the nominating process. "If they were all films made for under $100,000, the committee wouldn't be doing its job. If they were all films made for over $15 million, the committee wouldn't be doing its job. We just say the committee should represent a diverse slate of films, choosing the best films of the year, representing the best of independent film for the year."

Though it may be the attending celebrities who draw interest from media outlets and sponsors, the awards are also designed to spread the attention around as much as possible. When it became apparent that higher-profile films were muscling their way into the main categories, other categories were created to maintain a place for emerging filmmakers, including first feature and first screenplay and the John Cassavetes Award for films made for less than $500,000. Three prizes -- the Someone to Watch Award, the Truer Than Fiction documentary prize and the Producers Award -- come with a cash grant now up to $50,000.

As Hudson says, "Who needs money more than independent filmmakers?"

Filmmaker Andrew Bujalski, considered one of the leading lights of the current American indie film scene, won $20,000 in 2004 with his Someone to Watch Award. He was able to reimburse himself for money he had personally invested in his feature "Funny Ha Ha," as well as make deferred payments to some of his crew.

"So in the kind of most crass way," Bujalski recalls of the money that came with his award, "it was hugely helpful."

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