Put spirit back in indie awards

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Many awards shows are judged by how predictive they are of, well, other awards shows. Do the Globes reflect what Academy voters are thinking? Will SAG yield clues on the best actor Oscar race?

The industry's two indie-film kudofests -- which both have big days today -- have operated differently. Film Independent's Spirit Awards (which announces nominees Tuesday morning) and IFP's Gotham Independent Film Awards (which hands out prizes Tuesday night) were designed specifically to tap movies not getting love elsewhere.

This is logical: The indie film movement sprang up as a reaction to mainstream Hollywood, so its awards should do the same. It's also good. The awards business may be awash in star and industry back-scratching, but in the Spirits and Gothams, a category of writers, directors and producers have trophy shows to call their own.

But there's one thing these awards didn't count on as they forged their contrarian mission: They'd become too successful. Indie movies are now such a part of the awards mainstream that they regularly trump studio movies. When "Blood Simple" was nominated for five Spirits (including best feature) in 1986, it was a daring choice of a movie the Academy would never recognize. Two decades later, the Coen brothers were giving multiple thank-you speeches at the Kodak.

With these changes, the Spirits and Gothams look prescient. But the downside is that the shows now no longer seem like a necessary antidote to the Academy Awards; they seem like the Academy Awards lite.

Think about this: In each of the past five years, the best feature winner at the Spirits also was nominated for best picture at the Oscars. Even awards designed to recognize tried-and-true indies have fallen prey. Three years ago, "Crash" won the best picture Oscar. The winner of the Spirit for best first feature? "Crash."

The Gothams go out of their way to pick smaller movies but isn't immune either. This year it nominated such undeniably indie fare as "Ballast" and "Frozen River" for best feature. But it also tapped "The Visitor and "The Wrestler" -- two great films, but films that also are bona fide Oscar contenders.

There are a few things both shows could do to distinguish themselves in these days of the indie takeover.

The easiest is budgetary. Both could set a hard ceiling of, say $10 million, instead of the $20 million range of the Spirits or the more informal criterion of the Gothams, which requires that a film is made with an "economy of means."

They also could make ineligible any director or actor who has been nominated for an Oscar before. It's great that George Clooney makes a movie like "Good Night, and Good Luck." But is a personality with his industry clout really an indie filmmaker, someone who should compete with Gregg Araki?

The most radical change would be to cut out best feature entirely. Yes, awards shows need a denouement. But a category this general tends to attract the same nominees its counterpart at the Oscars do. Just look at last year's Spirit Awards winner, "Juno." A few years ago, the Gothams got into a PR pickle because it threw in "The Departed" -- a big-budget studio movie and eventual best picture winner -- with indie "Old Joy." Voters would have been better off keeping "Old Joy" in the breakthrough categories and skipping "The Departed" altogether.

Yes, I know -- glitz drives awards shows, and big movies bring big names, who bring glitz. But shows can still get the names via special tributes. And the stars who drive interest in these shows aren't classic A-listers anyway; they're personalities like Sarah Silverman.

Going more indie at a time when everyone's worried about ratings might seem like a contrarian choice. But let's face it -- the Spirits, which air on IFC and AMC, are about recognizing a part of the film world a lot more than they are about ratings. Besides isn't being contrarian what these shows were set up to do?
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