In Light of the Film Independent Spirit Noms, What Is an ‘Indie’ Awards Contender, Anyway?

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Photo Source: Eric Chakeen/A24

Want the inside scoop on all things awards? Welcome to Letter From the Awards Editor, our weekly series where Backstage’s Jack Smart takes a look at the latest film and television news, industry trends, and awards projections that matter to today’s working actor. 

Dear Backstage reader,

How are you? Doing well, I hope. Me? I’m a little swamped and can’t remember the last time I had a conversation that didn’t include mention of film or television award contenders. But hey, we both know I wouldn’t have it any other way.

This week saw a notable step on the path to Oscar night: yesterday’s Film Independent Spirit Award nominations, the 35th annual ceremony of which will take place the day before the Oscars on Feb. 8, 2020. Ever since they used to be referred to as the “Indie Spirits,” we at Backstage have looked to the non-profit org for clues on which films outside major studios feature award-worthy performances and which will be in the running for other major accolades.

Here’s What Scored 2019 Film Independent Spirit Award Nominations

I see the Spirit Awards—as well as the New York City–hosted IFP Gotham Awards, which announced their nominees in October—as signifiers of Hollywood trends, particularly when it comes to smaller-budget, smaller-impact feature films entering the proverbial mainstream. By looking at the nominees and winners of indie film awards historically, and seeing who also achieves recognition among those voting bodies considering indie and big-studio films alike, telling patterns emerge.

Quick statistics nerd-out: the Spirit Award for best feature, analogous to the best picture Oscar, rarely synched up with the latter prize before this decade. By my count, Spirit Award champs have gone on to win the Oscar six out of 34 times. But five of those repeats have occurred since 2011 (“The Artist,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Birdman,” “Spotlight,” and “Moonlight,” with 1986’s “Platoon” the only other winner of both). Is this the traditionalist Academy now looking to elevate smaller, fresher stories? Or is independent film mingling with the cultural mainstream in a way that could contradict its inherent nature?

However you read that trend, it speaks to a larger one that the industry has been grappling with since Hollywood’s Golden Age. It used to be that monolithic studio heads would spend fortunes on lavish productions and try to outdo only a handful of competitors. (Did you know that before the studio system, Thomas Edison even patented filmmaking technology to hold a monopoly on production and distribution?) Those days are long gone. Now, especially in our consume-all-the-entertainment-you-could-possibly-want-in-as-many-ways-as-humanly-possible age, lines between major and indie, and even studios and distributors, are increasingly blurred.

So what constitutes an indie project these days? At the Spirit Awards, submissions must be features whose total cost equals less than $22.5 million, considered for their “uniqueness of vision, original and provocative subject matter, [and] economy of means.” (Interesting to note: that amount was $20 million just last year. Does raising that ceiling reflect a desire to include slightly bigger, more mainstream fare under the “indie” umbrella?) The Gothams consider American “filmmaking with a point of view,” also made with “an economy of means.”

And if we’re going by the term’s original definition, indie films are anything not produced by the “Big Five” companies: Disney, Paramount, Sony, Universal, and Warner Bros. Surprisingly, that means a box office mega-hit like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” distributed in theaters by Disney but made by its “independent” subsidiary Lucasfilm, is technically an indie.

How to Make an Indie Film

I define indie films as healthy tributaries to that Hollywood mainstream: something probably self-financed or low budget, but more importantly, unlike anything experienced before. The quintessential example, in my mind, is Sean Baker’s “Tangerine”: audacious in form and content, driven by an indescribable energy, utterly outside the bounds of what an institution like the Academy would consider prestige. The voices of its talent on screen and off were the kinds of voices from which we seldom hear.

Moviemaking is a big, tentacled, monstrous business, with money flowing in ways that frankly, as an English and drama major who almost failed Econ 101, I don’t understand. But just as the industry is so centered on guessing what audiences will spend money on, the art it produces is reflective of the culture at large. So it matters which stories are being greenlit, and especially which are winning shiny trophies, because that is what affects what we think of as the mainstream. That’s why I appreciate that the Gotham and Spirit Awards honored Mya Taylor’s performance in “Tangerine,” making her the first transgender performer to claim major awards. That film could never have been made, let alone earn awards, without a robust indie film industry welcoming and recognizing different voices.

For me, the 2019 film that meets the outside-the-mainstream, who-could-have-dreamed-this-up originality criteria is Bong Joon-Ho’s “Parasite.” But of course, the Benny and Josh Safdie’s “Uncut Gems” and Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse,” which received the most Spirit noms this year, are also two standouts. Do you have a favorite indie from 2019? When you think of a movie with “indie” spirit, what comes to mind? Let me know in the comments below. 



Some More Smart Stuff:

  • Backstage’s “In the Envelope” podcast is up and running with new, exclusive interviews just in time for SAG Award Phase 1! Listen to Taron Egerton reveal why he loves auditioning, or Lucy Liu on navigating the “gnarled mess” of life as an actor.
  • Or if you’re looking for interview features on the creators behind some of today’s buzziest stage and screen projects, bookmark Backstage’s Meet the Maker series. It’s my favorite column in the magazine for a reason!
  • And this week’s cover star is none other than Academy Award winner Charlize Theron, star of the upcoming “Bombshell” and giver of excellent advice. “I’m interested in very complicated, conflicted characters, and sometimes that takes a while to wrap your head around,” she says of her artistic process.
  • Over 120 films from around the world premiered this past week at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles. I heard speculation that a few of its premieres will continue to play in the awards race, among them “Queen & Slim,” “Richard Jewell,” and of course closing night film “Marriage Story.”

Ready to get to work? Check out Backstage’s film audition listings!