Spirit Awards honor lower-profile filmmakers

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The Film Independent Spirit Awards have taken heat in the indie-film world for their recent tendency to honor midbudget prestige productions released by the major studios' specialty divisions -- in other words, the same movies likely to win statuettes at that other awards show held 24 hours later at the Kodak Theatre.

But that criticism has never been fair. Even in 2006, when major Spirits were handed out to "Crash," "Brokeback Mountain," "Capote" and "Good Night, and Good Luck" -- all best picture Academy Award nominees -- the honorees also included such low-budget indies as "Fixing Frank," "Lackawanna Blues" and "Room." None of those films got within a long and expensive cab ride of Hollywood and Highland.

Even in years of extensive Oscar crossover -- and perhaps especially then -- the Spirits still call attention to films well outside the marketplace mainstream, many of them undistributed or unacquired.

This year's best feature category is again dominated by specialty-division releases, although only one of them (the inescapable "Juno") is also up for the best picture Oscar. But the feature nominees also include Gus Van Sant's still-unreleased "Paranoid Park" (forthcoming from IFC Films), and taken as a whole, the 2008 Spirits encompass a wide range of work, from midbudget success stories to no-budget obscurities.

"The Spirit Award is the biggest thing you can get in my line of work," says Chris Eska, writer and director of the $40,000 production "August Evening." "It really is our Oscars, in the world of truly independent filmmaking." A story of undocumented Mexican farmworkers in rural Texas, "August Evening" is nominated for the John Cassavetes Award (for films with budgets below $500,000) and also won a best male lead nomination for Pedro Castaneda, a nonprofessional actor who plays the central character.

"I met Pedro on the street, and he had never acted before," Eska says. "Now he's nominated opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of America's greatest actors, and Tony Leung, an Asian superstar. This is a guy who'd never heard of the Spirit Awards before, who runs a small tow truck company from his home office in San Antonio."

Like Eska, writer-director Chris Smith, whose film "The Pool" is also nominated for the Cassavetes honor, believes it's crucial for genuinely independent filmmakers to take advantage of promotional opportunities like the Spirits while also understanding their place in the cinema economy.

"Every filmmaker is at the center of their own vortex, and I'm sure most of them believe their film deserves more recognition and a wider audience," Smith says. "But the system works in its own way, and if you want to make films, you need to work within that system."

Recognition for "The Pool," an intimate character drama shot in India, has been slow in coming. Smith premiered the film in competition at Sundance last year, to respectful reviews, but left without a deal. As he observes, some pictures that were major acquisition targets at Sundance when his wasn't, including "Grace Is Gone" and "Joshua," have underperformed in theaters.

"Some films get caught up in the weird wave of Sundance, and some don't," Smith says. "It doesn't have that much to do with the outside world, and it's all part of the process of making independent films today. It requires patience and perseverance."

More than a year later, Smith finally has distribution lined up through Vitagraph Films, which plans to release "The Pool" this fall, and he has no doubt the Spirit nomination will help attract viewers. "Of course I'm flattered to be nominated," he says. "Ultimately, it's another way to get people to notice the film. I've always felt confident that the movie will find its audience and will get the chance to stand or fall on its own."

This year's best documentary Spirit nominees feel like the shoulda-coulda-been Oscars, featuring such acclaimed low-boxoffice films as Dan Klores' "Crazy Love," Tony Kaye's "Lake of Fire" and Pernille Rose Gronkjaer's "The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun."

Nominee Jennifer Baichwal, director of "Manufactured Landscapes" -- a wide-screen survey of the work of photographer Edward Burtynsky, who travels the developing world shooting epic-scale images of industrial or post-industrial landscapes -- observes that the Oscar documentary category "defaults to content instead of form. Humanitarian stories are seen as the most powerful, and the form of the documentary film is never really stretched."

Baichwal's film, which cost roughly $800,000 and took three years to complete, has nearly completed its theatrical life, grossing less than $300,000 in the U.S. and about $500,000 in Canada. (It has also played in 12-14 foreign territories, Baichwal says.) Those numbers would send most Hollywood executives to the Xanax bottle, but for a largely visual, subtly confrontational film with no characters, those numbers are fine with Baichwal.

"I was praying that it would last at least a week in theaters, so that it wouldn't be completely embarrassing," she says. "We're just thrilled that people actually went to see it."

Baichwal hopes that the Spirit nomination will extend the film's life on DVD, but more than anything she sees it as an honor bestowed by those who understand the hazards and challenges of life on the indie fringe.

"The work has to be its own reward, as much of a cliche as that may be," she says. "But the point of making a film is for other people to see it and respond to it. And when it's people who work in this field and recognize how difficult it is to find financing and distribution, that really means a lot."   
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