The Independent Spirit Awards

There is an award ceremony on tonight at 10pm. Many of my readers have never heard of it, but it has consumed my free time for the last two months. It’s the Independent Spirit Awards, which have been given out by the voting members of Film Independent  or FIND (previously known as IFP/West) since 1984. Going along with its indie spirit, the awards are held as a luncheon on the beach in Santa Monica, the day before the Oscars. If you weren’t present at that lunch you can catch them tonight at 10 pm ET/PT on the IFC Channel. This year’s nominees are listed here.  

Who votes for these awards?  Well, people like me. One of the biggest perks of being a member of FIND (or IFP/NY) is the ability to vote for these awards. Free screenings of the nominated films are held in NY and LA and usually about a third of the nominated films are sent out to voters. (They tried streaming one year, but the technology wasn’t ready yet.) 

In it’s nearly thirty year history, a few things stand out: Martha Coolidge is the first woman to win Best Director for Rambling Rose in 1992, long before the Academy would recognize a female director. 

The Spirit Awards themselves have served as a litmus test for how we define an Independent film. In 1990 Martin Scorsese delivers the keynote address, stating, “Being independent doesn’t mean making low-budget films without studio backing…it is a way for being innovative out of inspiration as well as necessity.” In 1995 The IFP/West (now Film Independent) Board scrapped the nearly unenforceable financial regulations for determining a film’s eligibility for a Spirit Award nomination and replaces it with four criteria: Original, provocative subject matter; uniqueness of vision; economy of means; and percentage of independent financing. These serve as rough guidelines that the nominating committee-a group of 15 independent film professionals-use to make their decisions. In 2007 a $20 million cap is set for all films submitted for Spirit Awards nomination consideration. (You can read a more detailed year-by-year history, including summaries of some of the more raunchy jokes, here.)

The discussion of what constitutes an independent film is partly motivated by the line up for Best Feature. This year they are: 50/50, Beginners, Drive, Take Shelter, The Artist, and the Descendents; all the same films except 50/50 constitute the Best Director category. The fact that more often than not these two categories seem almost indistinguishable from the Golden Globes or even the list of the Oscar nominees is what prompts all that discussion about what is an independent film.

But where the Spirit Awards get interesting are in the categories that are unique to them: Best First Fearture, Best First Screenplay, John Cassavetes Award, given to the best feature made for under $500,000, and the Robert Altman Award, given to one film’s director, casting director, and its ensemble cast, which this year goes to Margin Call


As I started planning my viewing of the nominees back in December, I was impressed this year at how many films I could actually see in theatres. Yes, I sometimes had to drive a long way, here in South Florida, but even so I was able to see hard to find films like Take Shelter, Margin Call, My Week with Marilyn, Albert Nobbs, Shame, A Separation, and Melancholia without too much trouble, a higher number than any year since I started voting. Some films were even at my local multiplex: 50/50, Drive, Midnight in Paris, and of course, Descendants, The Artist

Also impressive were how many films I could watch at home on cable: Win Win, Another Earth, Beginners, and Martha Marcy May Marlene will soon be out, though not in time for voting.

But for my taste, the categories that include the most hidden jewels are the Best First Feature, Best First Screenplay, and the John Cassavetes Award. These are categories in which I hope to one day be competing, and one thing I’ve been trying to find out is the “inside scoop” on how go to get nominated. I’ve asked directors that I’ve written about in this blog if they were aiming for a Spirit Award nomination and the answer I got was “those awards are just as commercial as the Oscars.” For what FIND has to say about their nomination and selection process go here

Is this cynicism warranted? I can't really answer that. But I do want to reflect a bit on some of the surprising pleasures this year I got out of the nominated films.

First, 50/50 holds a special place in my heart. It is so very well written (Will Reiser is also nominated for Best First Screenplay) so well acted, and not least, it’s a comedy. Because comedy is one thing that’s often missing from the nominees for the Spirit Awards. I’ve learned that it’s best not to watch too many of the nominated films in a row, because one can become nearly suicidal as a result. But 50/50 was funny. Rachel Harris (nominated for Best Female Lead) in Natural Selection, was both funny and moving, and Ryan Gosling’s hotness level went way into the red in Drive, (Best Male Lead, Albert Brooks for Best Supporting Male, Best Feature, and Nicolas Winding Refn for Best Director). 

The other category that is always a pleasure to vote for is the John Cassavetes Award. This year the nominees include Bellflower, Circumstance, Hello Lonesome, Pariah, and The Dynamiter. This is a category where “shoestring budget” has a literal meaning, and along with the nominees for Best Documentary, the category on which I rely the most on the DVDs send out by FIND in order to be able to vote. I wasn’t able to see all the nominees this year, but of the ones I did see my favorite was Bellflower,  about two friends spend all of their free time building MAD MAX-inspired flamethrowers and muscle cars in preparation for a global apocalypse.   


For me the biggest surprise was a film called In the Family, nominated for Best First Feature. The minimum length for a film to qualify for the Spirit Awards is 70 minutes – but In the Family clocks in at a hefty 169. It was written, produced and directed by Patrick Wang, who also plays the lead role and, it seemed to me, sometimes set up the camera and then jumped in front of it.

Here is the summary: 

In the town of Martin, Tennessee, Chip Hines, a precocious six year old, has only known life with his two dads, Cody and Joey. And a good life it is. When Cody dies suddenly in a car accident, Joey and Chip struggle to find their footing again. Just as they begin to, Cody’s will reveals that he named his sister as Chip’s guardian. The years of Joey’s acceptance into the family unravel as Chip is taken away from him. In his now solitary home life, Joey searches for a solution. The law is not on his side, but friends are. Armed with their comfort and inspired by memories of Cody, Joey finds a path to peace with the family and becomes closer to his son.

The film has a slow but mesmerizing pace, with long patient takes letting the actors (the entire cast is marvelous, with Patrick Wang the most notable of all) do their thing in an almost stage play style. There is a lovely scene where the character played by Wang is sitting at the kitchen table, bereft after the accidental death of his longtime companion, while his little boy gets a beer from the fridge, gets a stool so he can reach the bottle opener, opens the bottle, and sets it in front of his dad, while he himself has a soda, all played in a warm silence.


It just so happens that a former student of mine, Andrew van den Houten, co-produced the film (along with Robert Tonino). Since he sat in my classroom and did his share of heckling the teacher, Andrew has gone on to start his own film production company, Modernciné, and already has nine features and a handful of short films to his  credit as producer. Andrew was gracious enough to grant me an interview for this blog.

At what point in the production of In the Family did you get involved?

I read early drafts of the screenplay as I am a fan of all of Patrick's written work.  I felt compelled to continue my long standing working relationship with Patrick immediately after connecting with the material and seeing the importance of the story.

What was your role on the film?

I came on as a producer and was responsible for budgeting as well as general oversight throughout the entire process.  My job was to make sure Patrick got the team as well as the resources within our means to pull off the film as closely to his vision as possible.  I also was the person who suggested that Patrick star in the film.  Seeing how personal the subject matter was in the screenplay, I knew it was going to be the best decision for him to play the part of Joey.  He knew exactly what he wanted and to find that in another actor would have been difficult.  At least I feel it would have been a challenge for him to separate the character rather than let it live through him.  The relationship between Joey and Chip in the movie is beautiful and so believable.  That was Patrick completely connecting with his character and allowing it to grow deeper and deeper as the movie went on.  It was fun to watch.

What attracted you to this film?

The social relevance of the story and the importance of the film being my friend Patrick's first feature.  I didn't want to see Patrick go out and make this with just anybody.  We work really well together and Patrick knows how to push me to do great work.

What are the distribution plans for this film?

Currently Patrick is self-distributing the movie and we are touring the film around the country and playing at different theaters.  I'm sure after the theatrical release we will distribute the movie on may other platforms.  For now our main focus is getting people to see the film in theaters and allowing them the chance to experience it with an audience.  It's been really wonderful that Patrick has been able to be present at so many different screenings.  Audiences love to ask him questions and connect with him after the film has screened.  This film's distribution is completely independent and the film was also made that way so it's really refreshing to watch it get out there.  Definitely the purest form of distribution!

The film's length and its slow pace made it difficult for it to get into festivals [it was rejected by 30 festivals before getting accepted]. How are the filmmakers combating that?

We are self-releasing the film [four walled at the Quad in Manhattan for a week in November] and audiences that have come to see the movie have not had issues with the length.  Also, The New York Times and many other critics have found the story's length not to be an issue but a strength.  That or they don't even address the film's length as it hasn't been a focus or point of discussion.  

It is unique to see a film that allows a story to unfold in such an organic discourse.  In the beginning I pushed to have Patrick cut thirty minutes out of the film, however, he insisted the film's length was perfect and what it was supposed to be.  I have to admit, after watching the finished film with many audiences I have really come to appreciate the time it takes.  It doesn't try and prove anything and really allows for you to experience what the characters are going through.  That's the power of great filmmaking I think.  Fitting conventions or industry standards was never a discussion or of interest to Patrick and in the end the movie has stood out for it.

How did a film with so many fest rejections get nominated for a Spirit Award?

The critics who have seen our four wall theatrical here in NYC at the Quad and other self-promoted theatrical screenings have fallen in love with the movie.  They have been real champions for the film.  We submitted the film with no expectations and to our good fortune were nominated!  After being rejected from so many festivals you can imagine what a pleasant surprise it was that the film was getting a real chance to be recognized.  We did win awards at two Asian film festivals and that's where the buzz in the press started.  The great thing about the Spirit Awards is that our film is now in a category with many other high profile movies.  It should help our film continue getting out there and building buzz. 

Any plans to work with Patrick Wang again?

Whenever he is ready to send me another project, I'm in!  He's a bold artist and really has a unique perspective.  It is refreshing to work with him as his films are always the complete opposite of the spectrum from the types of movies I usually make.  It's like getting to work out a different part of my brain when we make movies together.  Also, he's great at producing and I like the collaborative energy he brings to a project.  He's a great problem solver and has the perfect balance between understanding the business and creative.  

Identifying unique stories and why certain writing works or does not work allows me to get the most out of the projects I work on.  I learned about writing in college and it has proved to be the most important skill to have developed so that I can see the value in other peoples' writing. You don't need to be able to write a million dollar screenplay, although it would be nice, in order to be a producer.  But to understand how someone does write one is invaluable.  I feel the same way about acting, having done quite a bit of it in my early years.  That practice has allowed me to direct a couple of films and appreciate also what a great director can do for actors.


Don’t miss the Spirit Awards on IFC tonight at 10 pm. And if you are working on a low budget indie film, even one that’s been rejected by numerous festival, take heart, and submit it to the Spirit Awards.