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Can the 38th Annual Film Independent Spirit Awards be a format role model to plug the electricity back into awards shows?

Mar 2, 2023 | Film Awards

Film Independent Spirit Awards

It’s not a hot take – or even a not-microwaved-long-enough lukewarm spaghetti take – to say that awards shows have lost some luster. 

According to Variety, in 2016, the Oscars had a U.S. audience of 34.4 million viewers. In 2022, this number was 16.6 million viewers. Heck, the Golden Globes had no less than 17 million viewers between 2011 and 2020. After its 2022 boycott for a longtime neglect of diversity, the 2023 Golden Globes had 6.3 million viewers. How about the BAFTAs? News circulated the past couple of weeks that the 2023 BAFTA Awards viewership shot up by 2 million viewers to an average peak of 3.8 million viewers. 

This is roughly a third of the audience that tunes in on any given week to watch the Cleveland Browns play.   

Well, maybe the 38th Annual Film Independent Spirit Awards has something going on that the others don’t. The Spirit Awards do, after all, have the swagger to charge $20,000 per table to sit under a giant tent in Santa Monica on a Saturday afternoon. And winners say whatever they want! With curses! 

Let’s examine what gives the 2023 Film Independent Spirit Awards the juice to serve as a role model for the broken drifting flotsam that is the current cinematic awards scene.

Adam Sandler accepts the 2020 Film Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead for Uncut Gems

Adam Sandler accepts the 2020 Film Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead for Uncut Gems

The Film Independent Spirit Awards have been an accurate barometer of film quality through authentic inclusion

A 2020 Los Angeles Times pre-awards piece went in-depth with the makeup and history of Film Independent, the nonprofit organization that hosts and promotes the Spirit Awards. It detailed that in 2020, the makeup of the six nominating commissions for the Spirit Awards was 59% women and 51% people of color.

Josh Welsh, President of Film Independent, was quoted in the LA Times piece:

“It’s not like we’re doing an award show and then at the end we say, ‘Oh wait, we need to think about diversity here.’ It is baked into our DNA from the beginning. So the way you make it happen is you have a staff that is diverse and inclusive. You have a board of directors that is diverse and inclusive. Our membership is incredibly diverse.”

Now, the skeptical perspective could argue that it’s all publicity, or as Jerrod Carmichael said when he hosted the 2023 Golden Globes in January: “I’m here because I’m black.”

The primary ongoing discussion is that there’s a skewed bias in the films nominated each year because of a lack of diversity. The Spirit Awards, while they had more homogenous selections in the early years, have for a long time zagged left when the Oscars went right. Because of this, they’ve already established a nomination history that feels like a more truthful representation of the entire population of filmmakers. For example, in 1988 when the Academy gave Michael Caine “Best Supporting Actor” for Hannah and her Sisters, Morgan Freeman wasn’t nominated for 1987’s Street Smart. But he took home “Best Supporting Male” at that year’s 3rd Annual Spirit Awards.

Inclusion doesn’t just pertain to racial/gender inclusion – some of the best films spotlighted come from unknown filmmakers or low-budget films that are shunned at larger shows. Films that might normally hit their ceiling of recognition at a small film festival earn wider acclaim, like Ellie Foumbi’s Our Father, the Devil, which won the “Narrative Features Jury Award” at the 2022 New Orleans Film Fest. It’s now nominated for “Best Feature” at the 2023 Spirit Awards. The counterargument is that viewers prefer the big-budget, bombastic star-heavy films that often highlight the Oscars.

Much of the overhaul in escalating diversity in awards organizations has been prompted by public outrage, but you’d think someone might have glanced over at the Spirit Awards and said, “Can we at least take a look at what they’ve been getting right?”

The Film Independent Spirit Awards is built for spontaneity and self-deprecation

Bryan Cranston pours one out for Derek Connolly at the 2013 Spirit Awards

Bryan Cranston pours one out for Derek Connolly at the 2013 Spirit Awards

You look at the physical layout of the Spirit Awards, and it has the feel of an intimate film sub-community awards show, like the VES Awards for VFX artists. It’s in a big tent. Every table is circular and filled with booze, rather than sitting in impersonal movie theater rows. Because of this nonchalance, tongues are looser. People feel comfortable. People say things.

The Oscars often are jabbed at for a reputation of pretentiousness. The Spirit Awards might carry a sense of pretentiousness too, but they’re often humorously self-deprecating about their perceived standing in the industry. Andy Samberg likely nailed it the best when he said at the 2013 Spirit Awards:

“Everybody, say it with me – Hollywood, fuck you!”

Or as Megan Mullaly sarcastically put it in her 2022 monologue with Nick Offerman:

“Real artists are about pain and loss. They’re about sad, harshly lit nudity.”

Probably one of the more endearing moments was Derek Connolly, who won Best First Screenplay in 2013 for Safety Not Guaranteed. He got up on stage, staggered through a broken ramble, and had to be helped along by Bryan Cranston, who came up on stage and poured him a shot of Jameson from a mini bottle. 

If you’re a casual film lover, and you want to watch something that actually feels fun and spontaneous, you want to feel like you’re in a room with real people. People say what they want. They laugh naturally. And the average American viewer doesn’t feel like they’re staring up at a bunch of statuesque Greek gods on pedestals. 

The viewer at home wants to feel like they’re sitting in the same room as the filmmakers they love.

The 2023 Film Independent Spirit Awards against the 2023 Oscars: The branding of prestige versus storytelling grit

Jordan Peele accepts the award for Best Director for Get Out at the 2018 Spirit Awards

Jordan Peele accepts the award for “Best Director” for Get Out at the 2018 Spirit Awards

The brand of the Oscars is glamor. It is decadent. It is legacy and prestige. The Oscars is a bearded Robin Williams shyly waving his way through the red carpet crowd while twenty-something Robert Downey Jr. gestures excitedly with a reporter. 

The brand of the Spirit Awards is as if a Tiny Tim on crutches wandered onto the cobbled streets and used their last pennies to purchase a camera and some lighting gear. I’m not saying this is reality – a lot of huge movie stars attend the Spirit Awards each year – but this is public perception. The Spirit Award categories reflect this. 

They’ve got “Best First Feature”, “Best First Screenplay”, and the best feature made under $1 million (the John Cassavetes Award) – Shit, they’ve even got a “Someone to Watch Award” for the filmmaker that “has not yet received appropriate recognition”. The 2022 Film Independent Impact Report details workshops, labs, and grants for these growing filmmakers from all facets of the industry. 

Fair or not, if an objective observer looks at the structure of these two awards shows, they may conclude that the Spirit Awards supports the scrappy growing filmmaker with sincerity, while the Oscars is an event that is gloss without substance. 

You can look at the nominees for both the 2023 Oscars and Spirit Awards to see that this isn’t true. Brian Tyree Henry was nominated for a “Best Supporting” award in both the Oscars and Spirit Awards for an intimately contained New Orleans film called Causeway. The Oscars nominated The Whale for multiple awards with its $3 million budget. So, even if the major awards shows are paying attention to the most deserved filmmakers, they’ve lost so much from a reputational perspective. It’s going to take visible structural changes to bring back a perceived sense of dedication to storytelling over the veneer of prestige.

So…what’s the solution?

What did smug 90s Ian Malcolm say way back in Jurassic Park

“Life finds a way.” 

That’s the Oscars scientists in a lab staring at Spirit Awards petri dishes determining how best to regrow their viewership. The awards shows will adapt. The Golden Globes have already taken steps – they completely overhauled their all-white nominating body and according to NAACP’s Dr. Cheyenne Bryant, are now 52% “racially and ethnically diverse”.    

Compare and judge for yourself over the next two weeks: 

The 38th Annual Film Independent Spirit Awards will air live at 5 p.m. EST on IMDB’s Youtube channel as well as Film Independent’s Youtube channel on Saturday, March 4th, hosted by comedian Hasan Minhaj.  

The 95th Academy Awards will air live on Sunday, March 12th at 8 p.m. EST on ABC, or stream it on multiple platforms. Jimmy Kimmel will return to host for the third time. 

If you hate awards shows and just want to spend the weekend being creative: call your friends, write something simple, and shoot it. Because who knows? 

Next year it might be you up on that stage.

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