Indie Spirits: Cheap Thrills

To the true indie nominees, the Spirits represent more than just a dream realized

The Spirits have gone Hollywood.

That's the oft-repeated cynic's take on the Film Independent Spirit Awards, which in recent years have honored such studio specialty division fare as this year's nominees "Milk," "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and "Synecdoche, New York," each of which pushes the upper end of the $20 million limit set by Film Independent.

But tell that to Lance Hammer, the director of "Ballast," which has been nominated for six Spirits, including best feature. Hammer financed the film's paltry $700,000 budget largely out of his own pocket. To him, the Spirits represent the culmination of a year spent following the film around the world from its Sundance premiere to Berlin, Cannes, Telluride and Toronto -- and finally to Saturday's ceremony on the beach in Santa Monica.

"It's just a comforting and reassuring way to put an end to a difficult year," Hammer says. "Your colleagues have said what you have done is OK. And it means I can keep pursuing this and it's not a totally ridiculous pipe dream."

Indeed, despite the persistent criticism that the Spirits have sold out, the majority of films nominated this year cost less than $7 million, and in many cases well under that.

"Wendy and Lucy," nominated for best feature and best female lead for Michelle Williams, cost about $300,000. Courtney Hunt's "Frozen River," nominated for six Spirits, was financed for about $1 million, much of it coming from Hunt's husband's business associates.

These kind of dream projects have been the lifeblood of the Spirit Awards for more than two decades. In addition to putting a spotlight on unknown directors, producers, cinematographers and actors, the awards often provide a significant career boost.

Seven-time nominee Gus Van Sant, who picked up his first Spirit in 1990 for "Drugstore Cowboy," helmed "Milk," which collected four nominations. Darren Aronofsky, nominated this year with Scott Franklin for best feature for "The Wrestler," received three previous nominations and won best first screenplay in 1999 for "Pi."

That kind of career trajectory is the goal for Hammer. As a USC architecture graduate, he did photographic renderings that caught the attention of Warner Bros., where he was hired to produce 3-D images. He rose to assistant art director on the Coen brothers' "The Man Who Wasn't There," but chaffed under the tight controls of the studio system.

So he began to develop projects of his own. "We got very far with a lot of this, but it was just incredibly frustrating," he says. "Creative control is really yanked from you when these other people get involved ... and creative control is really important to me."

Hammer then teamed with producer Mark Johnson ("The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe"), but when a project fell through, "He said, 'The hell with it. I'm going to go off and do this other movie in Mississippi,' " Johnson says. "And damned if he didn't."

That other movie became "Ballast," which features a cast of unknowns drawn from the Delta region.

"I decided to go for something very pure and simple," Hammer says, "and make it like a painting or a musical recording made in your house, where I could have great autonomy and isolation."

After "Ballast's" success at Sundance, IFC offered to distribute the film but Hammer eventually decided the economics didn't work for him. Instead, he put together his own ad hoc group to self-distribute. For help he turned to New York-based publicist and producers rep Stephen Raphael, who arranged publicity and oversaw distribution at art house venues in nearly two dozen markets. Each of the awards and honors became part of the marketing campaign.

"It's a very good example to show you don't need an entire studio with a marketing department," Raphael says. "Everybody worked below their usual rate because we all really believed in the movie."

After 10 weeks in release, "Ballast" has grossed about $116,000 in theaters. Hammer says he has developed a second revenue stream from showings at museums and special venues; and he still has the DVD, pay TV, syndication and Internet rights to sell. He already plans to self-distribute his next movie as well.

"The film was received in a way I didn't think was going to be possible," Hammer says.

A boost from the Spirits also was important to Iranian-American filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, whose "Chop Shop" is nominated this year for best director and best cinematography. In February 2008, just before his movie opened in New York, he received the annual "Someone to Watch" award, which comes with a $25,000 cash prize. That win was perfectly timed to boost interest in the movie, which was made for slightly less than $1 million.

"At the time I was making my new film, 'Goodbye Solo,' which took a year and a half," Bahrani says. "A large part of that ... I didn't have any salary. So until the rest of the funding came into place, that $25,000 really helped me in very specific and concrete ways."

The official guidelines for judging Spirit Awards state that particular attention be paid to "economy of means," which refers to total production cost, individual compensation and what percentage of the financing came from independent sources. The goal is to reward filmmakers like Hammer and Bahrani who are able to make the most of their limited resources -- and bring them to the industry's attention.

"It brings a level of exposure to the talent and gives them a shot at a career," Film Independent executive director Dawn Hudson says. "We're trying to give people the tools to build a career in this business, not just a one-night stand."

For that reason, managers, producers and others increasingly parse the Spirit nominees looking for upcoming talent. Producer-director Alan Poul says that when he was working on HBO's "Six Feet Under," he regularly sought out nominees and winners. "We were looking for directors who had a voice, who could add their personality to help expand the vocabulary of the show," Poul says.

One of his finds was Michael Cuesta,whose film "L.I.E." was nominated seven times in 2002 and won twice. Cuesta is now directing Edgar Allen Poe's "Tell Tale," a $20 million-plus thriller for producers Tony and Ridley Scott.

"It's a great way to open doors," says Barry Jenkins, whose "Medicine for Melancholy" is up for three Spirits, including best first feature. "But you still have to deliver."

Jenkins' film, made for less than $50,000, also has been nominated for best cinematography for James Laxton, who like Jenkins is a graduate of Florida State University, where most of the crew met. "We're a bunch of cats who didn't know anybody before we made this movie," says Jenkins, who signed with CAA after the film was shown at Toronto. "And now our cinematographer is nominated and going around town taking meetings and our editor has another movie already."

Jenkins has not yet taken another directing gig because, like almost all the filmmakers interviewed for this story, he prefers to remain at least somewhat independent.

"Right now I'm being very careful," Jenkins says. "I'm trying to bring material to my agent that we can package, rather than take whatever is offered."

Independence also was of paramount importance to Alex Rivera, whose inventive science fiction film "Sleep Dealer" is nominated for best first feature. He is Peruvian-American, and his film was made mostly in Spanish to be true to the main characters, who are Mexican. Although it was shot in 50 locations across Mexico, with a crew of 100, and has 450 special effects shots, the budget was only about $2.5 million.

"Now people are curious about me and what I'll do next," says Riviera, who is working on a project about the life of a robot with producers John Wells and Salma Hayek. "In a way, it is the end of this film's festival life. And to have it end with a Spirit Award is a thrill."