Indie filmmaking, awards have come a long way

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When Film Independent, the organization devoted to developing and celebrating independent filmmaking, launched in 1980, Sundance was a tiny affair called the Utah/US Film Festival. Independent distributors were barely in business, and studio specialty divisions were still years away.

No one had the expertise to market independent films, and filmmakers were forced to tack extra zeroes on their budgets because digital technology didn't exist yet.

"Everything was in its infancy," says Dawn Hudson, the executive director of Film Independent. "The movement of independent film was much more concentrated and much less well-known. But gradually, there's been an accumulation of expertise and knowledge that's let independent filmmaking flourish."

Some of this success is due to the 28-year-old organization that, since 1986, has hosted a festive daytime affair on the beach in Santa Monica.

"(The Spirit awards are) a great recognition within the independent film community," says Steven Bersch, president of Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group. "It is their day. And on some level it helps market the movies because it's a very legitimate honor."

Even back in '86, the Spirits were an important bellwether of the indie movement, awarding best director honors to Joel Coen for his and brother Ethan's breakthrough, "Blood Simple." Steven Soderbergh won best director for "sex, lies, and videotape" in 1990; Robert Rodriguez took best first feature in 1994 for "El Mariachi"; and Quentin Tarantino won writing (with Roger Avary) and directing awards in 1995 for "Pulp Fiction."

Today the influence of indie films is evident in the boxoffice grosses of some of the Spirit Award nominees. Last year's major nominee, "Little Miss Sunshine," grossed almost $60 million domestically, and this year, best feature nominee "Juno" (Fox Searchlight) has already surpassed $100 million and landed its soundtrack at No. 1 on the Billboard music charts.

But the Spirits aren't about boxoffice. It's just that the public has caught on to what Film Independent has been preaching for years: Some of the most compelling stories are being told on smaller budgets.

"You realize how deep the appetite is for stories and the breadth of spectrum that people want to hear," says Hudson, who has worked for Film Independent since 1991. "When I started, it was a small cult that wanted original storytelling. And then you realize now it's a huge movement."

Film Independent is also unique in that its jury, made up of indie execs, creatives and critics, bestows niche honors, such as the John Cassavetes Award, given to the best feature made for under $500,000, and the best first screenplay award. Heavily marketed studio specialty-division films compete side by side with independently financed and barely seen passion projects.

"Film Independent's tireless devotion to the independent film community is a testament to the ever-growing number of quality independent films today," says Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Entertainment, which has several films nominated, including Gus Van Sant's "Paranoid Park" for best feature and "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" for best foreign film.

The event also happens to be a good time.

"It's a really exciting, cool event where the kids take over the house for the night and celebrate the more interesting -- dare I say hipper, edgier -- fare," says writer John Orloff, nominated for best first screenplay for "A Mighty Heart" (Paramount Vantage).

At this year's show, taking place Saturday afternoon and hosted by actor Rainn Wilson, the 1,400 guests will enjoy a greener experience.

"Rather than buy carbon credits, we are showing what you can do in your personal life to make different choices," says Diana Zahn-Storey, Spirit Awards producer. All food served at the event will be organic and grown within 150 miles of Los Angeles. Most of the press materials were posted online, and those that required printing were done so on 100% post-consumer recycled paper with soy-based ink. It will also be a "zero waste" event, meaning that every decoration will be reused or recycled -- including the AstroTurf.

And the awards are only part of Film Independent's mission. The revenue from the telecast's live broadcast on the Independent Film Channel (with a tape-delayed repeat on AMC) helps it host the Los Angeles Film Festival, which provides a forum for independent feature-length films, shorts, music videos and high school films.

"Our goal is to represent the great filmmaking of Hollywood," Hudson says. Festival participants qualify for the Spirit Awards. (This year's L.A. fest will run June 19-29.)

Chris Eska wrote and directed "August Evening," about an undocumented farmworker's relationship with his young, widowed daughter-in-law. It premiered at the L.A. Film Festival last year and is nominated for the 2008 John Cassavetes Award.

"So far, (Film Independent) has been incredibly supportive," Eska says.

The organization also sponsors director, screenwriter and producer labs. For seven weeks, these tutorials help cultivate promising independent filmmakers and provide them with industry connections so important to filmmaking and professional development.

"Embedded in all our programs is that goal of making the film industry more diverse, meaning the stories that are told and the people who are telling them," Hudson says.

The labs nurture those voices, the L.A. Film Festival helps build an audience, and the Spirit Awards provide a platform to celebrate that effort.

"For those truly small films, it's a life-changer," says "Juno" director Jason Reitman. "It's something like (the Spirit Awards) that gets someone to add independent films to their Netflix queues."   
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