25th Film Independent Spirit Awards

Can the Spirits retain their indie attitude at a new venue?

Shortly after the final beer bottles and cocktail napkins were removed from the Santa Monica beach last February, the board of directors of Film Independent met to spitball ideas for the 2010 Spirit Awards.
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"We really wanted to do something different," recalls Dawn Hudson, who, as executive director of Film Independent, has overseen the indie version of the Oscars since 1992. "It's like your marriage is great in every possible way, but you still want to take your vacation and go to the Caribbean or to the mountains."

What emerged from those meetings is the most radical change to the Spirits since the event moved to a tent near the sand 18 years ago. The board voted to celebrate the awards' 25th anniversary by moving the ceremony to an entertainment center in downtown Los Angeles on the Friday night before the Academy Awards, a day earlier than the usual Saturday afternoon ceremony.

Those changes immediately raised concerns in some quarters that the famously unique affair might become less special, less renegade -- and, God forbid, more like every other event on the awards circuit.

Not true, says Hudson.

"We're absolutely not changing the Spirit Awards," she says. "Making it a late-night downtown party doesn't mean a stodgier, more formal or more predictable show. We want to keep the looseness. The acceptance speeches are still not timed out. Anything goes."

In other words, the look might be different, but the DNA of the Spirit Awards is unchanged.

Director John Waters -- presenting last year with Zooey Deschanel -- is a Spirit Awards regular.
 

"It's always going to be funky," says producer Stephanie Allain, who headed the nominating committee this year. "We don't have the budget to make it anything but funky. It's all done on a shoestring, and that's the intention."

Those budgetary concerns stem from the fact that a successful Spirit Awards is crucial to Film Independent. The TV rights provide the bulk of the nonprofit group's yearly funding, which pays expenses and puts on events year-round, including the Los Angeles Film Festival.

Hudson denies that the move downtown is an attempt to save money, though she admits that building a venue on the beach from scratch is probably the most expensive way to stage an awards show. The downtown site, adjacent to the new Regal Cinemas, will be less expensive, she says, but that was not the main consideration.

"The driver for this was to do something different for the 25th anniversary," she notes. "We love the beach. It's part of our heritage and we may return there next year or in future years. But for this year we wanted a late-night party and you can't do that on the beach. You'd be tripping over the cables in the dark."

The move wasn't even the brainchild of Film Independent. For several years, IFC Channel, which televises the event, had been suggesting a shift to Friday night as a way to boost ratings.

"It was our idea to change the time and day," says Jennifer Caserta, IFC's executive vp and GM. "We presented it to Film Independent as something to do if they really wanted to make some noise."

The move is fine with this year's host, British comedian Eddie Izzard. He says his early years as a street performer prepared him to take on his first-ever gig as an awards show host.

"I like to play it loose," Izzard says. "Whatever happens, if everything collapses in the middle or something blows up, I just go with it. As a street performer, you have to deal with anything that happens. If a car drives through your show, you go with it."

It's unlikely that any vehicles will interrupt the proceedings. But if the past is any indication, almost anything else goes. Odd dress and bizarre behavior are to be expected, as are colorful speeches like last year, when best actor winner Mickey Rourke ("The Wrestler") said of his director, Darren Aronofsky: "He's one tough son-of-a-bitch, and he don't like it when I say that 'cause he goes, 'Mickey, you'll scare the other actors away from me.' But Darren, you know what, if they ain't got the balls to bring it, then f*** 'em."

That outrageous atmosphere is the signature aspect of the show, says Jamie McGurk, who is producing the Spirits for the first time, along with Barry Adelman of Dick Clark Prods.

"It's still going to be loosey-goosey and funky," says McGurk, who heads Off Balance Prods. "It's going to be a late-night party with more of a downtown club feel."

Aaron Eckhart and Robin Wright present at the sun-drenched ceremony last year. Will the downtown location get a warm reception?
 

McGurk says the show will feature more musical performances by indie bands associated with indie movies. There will also be clips of outrageous and memorable moments from past shows as part of the 25th anniversary celebration.

The one thing organizers hope will change is the size of the audience that watches the show on television. In past years, the Spirit Awards were broadcast live on IFC at 2 p.m. on the West Coast (5 p.m. Eastern).

"Saturday afternoon is a tough time slot to get people to watch something live," Hudson says.

This year the show will air live at 8 p.m. PST (11 p.m. EST), which Film Independent hopes will boost ratings. (Until this year an edited version of the Spirits was later aired on AMC but this year only IFC is carrying the show.)

Caserta will not say how many viewers the program attracted in past years (IFC does not subscribe to Nielsen's rating service) but expects that audience size to jump with the move to Friday night, especially in the East.

"Late night on a weekend is when our young, heavily male audience comes to watch us," Caserta says. "There should be a significant increase in the audience."

IFC's promotion has emphasized the unpredictable nature of the show. "This is the late-night, pre-Oscar snack, the rowdy version of an awards show," Caserta adds. "We are taking it off the beach and putting it into a venue that may be even more rock and roll."

To that end, the two-hour-plus ceremony will air without any expletives deleted. IFC also will rebroadcast the show uncut later in the weekend. Those attending will recognize the banquet-hall format, but dinner will be served instead of lunch. The booze can flow even more freely, adding to the atmosphere.

"We're still the same vibe," Hudson says. "But instead of starting with the Jameson Irish Whiskey at 11 a.m., we're going to start at 6 p.m. and go on past midnight."
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