Charge: The Independent Spirit Awards Aren’t Indie Enough

Rebuttal: That's not necessarily a bad thing

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Jaap Buitendijk / Fox Searchlight

Yesterday, when nominations for this year’s Independent Spirit Awards were announced, some of the initial reaction was the typical excitement created by any awards announcement. Critical favorite 12 Years a Slave received the most nods (for feature, director, screenplay, male lead, supporting female, supporting male, cinematography and editing), with best feature noms also going to All Is LostFrances Ha, Inside Llewyn Davis and Nebraska.

A common second take on the nominations, however, was less “what an honor!” than “wait a second…”

The Spirit Awards were created in 1984 to honor independent films, but the list of films and people recognized in this year’s nominations isn’t exactly a selection of up-and-coming scrappy DIYers. Though some films in the group do hew more closely to the stereotypical view of an indie, other nominees include Woody Allen, Matthew McConaughey and Robert Redford. And anyone who has seen 12 Years a Slave can vouch for the fact that it’s a lavishly created look at history with an A-list cast.

Deadline noted that the nominations will likely overlap a lot with Oscar noms, and that  “the Spirits seem to be trying more consciously to match what they think Oscar voters will crown rather than truly “independent” movies.”

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It’s not that the Awards don’t have a strict definition of what counts as independent. According to their rules for eligibility, movies made for less than $20 million (including post-production) qualify, with a possibility for variations at the discretion of the nominating committees. Any film that costs more than $15 million must submit budget information to verify eligibility. (Films that meet the budget cut-off but do not qualify as American films or did not get a theatrical release within the date window are also disqualified from the nominations.)

As detailed by the Awards Daily blog in a post about last year’s winners and snubs, multiple industry-specific factors—many having to do with the history of Miramax—have contributed to the melding of “indie” movies and mainstream awards hopefuls. But there’s also the way technological advancements have meant that $20 million will go a long way for a resourceful filmmaker. And the fact that nominating films and stars that meet the Indie Spirit rules help the show’s TV ratings. And that, though it’s unlikely to have really influenced anyone’s decision to submit for one honor or the other, the long-running idea that winning the Spirit Award top prize is a jinx for the Oscar was broken in 2011 when The Artist took home both.

Dissatisfaction with the Independent Spirit Awards nominees, then, is less likely to reflect a Hollywood take-over of something that used to be somehow more pure; especially given the budget standards imposed for eligibility, it’s probably more accurate to say that the confluence of Oscar and Spirit predictions reflects the mainstream wising up to smaller films, rather than vice versa. But as many music fans have noted, “indie” is no longer a question of just money and institutional backing. The idea of an indie movie has acquired an aesthetic quality and a making-of narrative, and it’s something that audiences hoping for “the little movie that could” don’t see in a picture like 12 Years a Slave, even if they’re otherwise fans of the movie.

But, as Variety observed, domination by big-name movies at the Spirit Awards doesn’t have to be a bad thing for the state of indie cinema. After all, 12 Years a Slave isn’t the only movie nominated, even though it gets the most mentions. Other movies that appear on the list—like Upstream Color, Wadjda or Short Term 12—will surely benefit from being mentioned alongside their more better-known brethren.

The Spirit Awards will be held on Mar. 1, 2014.