Indie Spirit: Oscar's consolation prize
The purpose of the Independent Spirit award is to salute what past ceremony host Samuel L. Jackson once called "the strange, the weird, the eclectic, the visionary, the new blood." Ideally, it's supposed to help offbeat, low-profile quality films that could use the boost so that someday, maybe, they could compete in the big Oscar league.
Back when the Spirits took flight, they tried hard to keep that focus. Its first best-picture winner in 1985, "After Hours," wasn't nominated for a single Oscar. But then "Platoon" won best pic at both awards the next year and thereafter the Spirit award aimed more and more at academy-friendly films, probably to increase its profile. Another early Spirit best-pic winner, "River's Edge," was snubbed at the Oscars, but the other champs usually made it into the lower-rung Oscar categories like screenplay ("sex, lies and videotape") and acting ("Rambling Rose"), but usually not in the top Oscar race.
Then a few like "Pulp Fiction" and "Fargo" broke in and suddenly it was not uncommon to see the Spirit's best picture in the Oscar's equivalent race, like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Now the pairing seems automatic. The last four top winners at the Spirits were all nominated for best picture at the Oscars: "Lost in Translation," "Sideways," "Brokeback Mountain" and "Little Miss Sunshine. Now "Juno" may make it five in a row. "Platoon" is the only film to win both.
Meantime, many overlaps have occurred in the acting slots, including Geraldine Page ("The Trip to Bountiful"), Nicolas Cage ("Leaving Las Vegas"), Charlize Theron ("Monster") and Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Capote") in the lead categories. Usually, the Spirit champ gets disappointed at the Oscars the next day, thus the common wisecrack, "Win on Saturday, lose on Sunday."
However, the point is: the overlap between contenders at both kudos is getting to be ridiculous and great, struggling indies needing recognition — the reason the award exists at all — are getting lost in stardust.
Partly to blame is the Oscar envy of Spirit voters. Also responsible is the Oscars' embrace of indie movies in recent years. But the bottom line is that so-called "indies" aren't really indies anymore.
Films eligible for the Spirits can have a budget up to $20 million and most of them have major studios behind them, just not the big branch of the company. Twentieth-Century Fox, for example, devotes its attentions to big popcorn or franchise films like "The Simpsons Movie" and pushes off its artsy stuff like "Juno" to its indie branch, Fox Searchlight. But they're really the same company, just with different shingles on the doors.
The good news this year is that at least the big winner "Juno" wasn't a big production. It was filmed for only $7.5 million. Its director, writer and main star are relative rookies. The rest of the cast is loaded with celebs like Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, thus giving it high profile, but it's not a film made for twice that amount ("Brokeback Mountain") by a star director (Ang Lee), dubiously defined as an "indie."