Independent Spirit Awards are prized possessions

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Most agree that the marketplace impact of winning a Film Independent Spirit Award is orders of magnitude smaller than that conferred by the golden statuettes to be handed out at the Kodak Theatre one day after Saturday's Santa Monica beach ceremony. Still, the Spirit Awards remain a valued accolade for the big fish of indie film and a crucial point of entry for outsiders.

Even though ThinkFilm head of U.S. theatrical distribution Mark Urman labored mightily to garner an Academy Award nomination for Ryan Gosling's memorable performance as a crack-addicted inner-city schoolteacher in the company's "Half Nelson," he insists the film's five Spirit nominations are especially gratifying.

"We're an independent film company first and foremost," Urman says, "so the Spirits and the Gothams (awards presented in November by the Independent Film Project in New York) are important to us. These awards mean that our peers like our work, that we have excelled in our own field. If we can register on the Oscar radar, then we've exceeded our expectations."

Despite outstanding reviews from mainstream critics, Urman notes, Gosling is not regarded as a major movie star -- "Half Nelson" grossed less than $3 million at the domestic boxoffice -- so the timing of the Spirit nominations became crucial to ThinkFilm's Oscar push.

"There's enormous cross-pollination between the Spirits and the Oscars," he says. "When the Oscars honor independent films, it happens because they've been elevated by a great deal of attention from the Spirits and the Gothams. When 'Half Nelson' registered so strongly with Spirit nominations, it fortified our campaign for Ryan."

Despite grumbling in indie circles last year when three of the five best feature nominees at the Spirits also were nominated for the best picture Oscar -- a fourth, eventual Oscar winner "Crash," won the Spirit for best first feature -- only one film is in both categories this year: Fox Searchlight's inescapable "Little Miss Sunshine." Many observers note that the 2007 Spirit nominees represent a broad spectrum of product.

"I see a very well-rounded list of nominees this year," says Lisa Nishimura-Seese, general manager of Palm Pictures, which released Michael Kang's "The Motel," a nominee for best first feature. She says the Spirit Award nomination will be an invaluable marketing tool for the film, a coming-of-age story that was shot on a shoestring budget and that is already available on DVD and via Internet download.

"I don't see any other awards out there honoring these small independent films," she says. "It's fantastic to have a film like 'The Motel' in contention alongside titles like 'Half Nelson' or 'Little Miss Sunshine.' The Spirits have become arbiters of what's new and exciting coming out of the independent sector."

While Gosling might be stopping off in Santa Monica en route to the Oscars, the Spirits have continued their tradition of honoring overlooked performances and underperforming titles. For the second year running, Robin Wright Penn has been nominated for a role seen by few paying customers -- last year for writer-director Rodrigo Garcia's 2005 film "Nine Lives" and this year for writer-director Jeff Stanzler's IFC Films release "Sorry, Haters." Other acting nominees include Elizabeth Reaser for Ali Selim's self-distributed "Sweet Land," Amber Tamblyn for Regent Releasing's upcoming "Stephanie Daley" and Michelle Williams for Wim Wenders' virtually unreleased "Land of Plenty."

Few of this year's nominees, however, failed as conspicuously as writer-director Karen Moncrieff's "The Dead Girl," a dark film about a murder released by First Look in late December. It already had been nominated in three categories (best feature, director and supporting female performance for Mary Beth Hurt) when it opened to respectful reviews -- and near-empty theaters. Its total reported domestic gross to date is about $17,000.

Although the Spirit Award nominations couldn't rescue "Dead Girl" in an overcrowded holiday season, they might create that rarest of opportunities in the film business, says First Look president Ruth Vitale: a second chance. "People may be willing to take another look at the film," she says. "We're going to release it in more cities theatrically when we have a little more space, when we're away from awards season. And it will definitely make a difference when it comes to DVD."

For lesser-known actors and directors, the Spirit Awards can provide a crucial career-builder and an opportunity to impress an A-list crowd. For the Hollywood power brokers, the movies being honored now are less important than the ones that lie ahead. "Everybody's there," Urman says. "There isn't an agent in town, there isn't an executive, who you don't see at the Spirits at some point. They're there to become aware of all kinds of talent they otherwise wouldn't."

MORE SPIRIT AWARD COVERAGE:
Prize possessions: Spirit Award coveted by veterans and newcomers
No experience required: Nominees offer fresh perspective
Show time: Bleachers enhance red-carpet experience
Dialogue: Film Independent's Dawn Hudson
2007 Spirit Award Nominations
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