Independent Spirit Awards go through growing pains

Steven Zeitchik
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

LOS ANGELES — Those seeking a quick primer on Film Independent's Spirit Awards need only YouTube Mickey Rourke's acceptance speech at last year's ceremony.

The "Wrestler" star began his address — which clocked in at an Oscar-unfriendly six minutes — by imploring the room to hire Eric Roberts, then nearly broke into tears over the death of his dog and, in what may or may not have been a joke, threatened to beat up host Rainn Wilson over an impersonation.

Is Rourke available for an encore?

As the Spirit Awards prepares to stage its 25th-anniversary show Friday night in downtown Los Angeles, it will try to capture the anarchic tone that over the years has made it a fun and sometimes headline-worthy alternative to the Oscars. But reaching that high bar won't be easy. The show has instituted changes in venue, time and format, and also must cope with the contraction of the specialty-film business, an absence of the year's most buzzed-about independent film and the eternal question of its balance between the indie and mainstream.

When Film Independent, the nonprofit that runs the Spirits and the Los Angeles Film Festival, announced last summer that it was making a number of changes to the event, the announcement was greeted with a few raised eyebrows. The group was moving the awards out of its slot on the Saturday afternoon of Oscar weekend, which it had occupied for the past 10 years, to an 8 p.m. Friday slot. The show was also moving from its customary location under a large tent on the beach in Santa Monica to a venue at the L.A. Live complex.

Those may seem like trivial changes, but in the small, incestuous world of independent film — which can be just as tradition-bound in its way as its studio counterpart — many veterans privately wondered if the Spirits was simply trying to save a few pennies. In the process, they said, it was fair to ask if the show would lose its let-down-your-hair feel.

But organizers have said that they simply wanted to mix up the familiar, which is why they've made other changes, like eliminating a group of popular song parodies in favor of performances from nominee Jeff Bridges and the band members featured in "Anvil!: The Story of Anvil." "If it's the same every year, we risk it becoming rote," said Film Independent executive director Dawn Hudson.

The group's partners have by and large embraced, and even encouraged, the change. The Independent Film Channel, which has aired the show live in recent years, says it was always on board for a live nighttime airing, even if the telecast pushes well after 11 p.m. on the East Coast. "There are more eyeballs in late night than on a Saturday afternoon, especially for an audience predisposed to loving what's off the beaten path," said Jennifer Caserta, general manager of IFC.

The Spirit Awards, which this year will be hosted by British comedian Eddie Izzard, must also contend with the absence of arguably the most widely acclaimed independently-made film, "The Hurt Locker." Because Kathryn Bigelow's war drama was submitted, and also earned nominations (two, both in the acting category), last year, it was not eligible for consideration. That could create a head-scratching paradox: An indie film not mentioned at the Spirits goes on to win a bucket of Oscars later in the weekend. (Film Independent says it could revisit its rules for next year.)

What the show will feature is a mix of movies that are fiercely independent, as well as some that may stretch the definition. Its best-picture category includes — in addition to boutique pictures with limited theatrical releases such as "Amreeka" — movies with sizable marketing budgets that have grossed $30 million or more, including "(500) Days of Summer" and "Precious." And it will feature several nominees, including "A Serious Man" and "Adventureland," that were made entirely with studio money, certainly at a higher end of the independent-budgetary spectrum.

But organizers say that money should not be the only yardstick for a Spirits nominee. "You can't pigeonhole a film as being more independent if it's made on six figures than if it's made on seven figures," said Rebecca Yeldham, director of the Los Angeles Film Festival who is also involved in the awards show (and was a producer on "Anvil"). "It's all about the spirit of the film."





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