Since TV categories were added in 2021, the Film Independent Spirit Awards have become a funhouse mirror version of the Golden Globes, where often richer TV stars mingle with lower-paid film actors, drinks flow freely and the stakes aren’t as high as the Oscars or Emmys. Yet this 38th annual ceremony is filled with suspense — and not just for nominees and movie fans. Among the big questions:
• How many people will watch? For the first time since 1997, it won’t be presented live on IFC, streaming instead on IMDb’s YouTube channel, as well as both Film Independent’s YouTube channel and Twitter.
• Will audiences accept the new gender-neutral lead and supporting acting categories? They open up the field for non-binary nominees, yet — despite adding awards for breakthrough performance in film and supporting performance in a new scripted series — cut the number of top solo film and TV acting honors in half.
• Can comedian-actor Hasan Minhaj charm the crowd as effectively as recent hosts including Aubrey Plaza? And since the March 4 ceremony is Film Independent’s biggest fundraiser, will the nonprofit make up for the shortfall from losing its cablecast licensing fee?
Film Independent president Josh Welsh considered the answers as he steers the awards through a precarious time, when lower box office for indies and streaming cutbacks have the ceremony playing to a nervous crowd.
“People are freaking out,” Welsh jokingly admits. “Way back in 2008, [former Warner Independent head] Mark Gill gave a talk, ‘Yes, the Sky Really Is Falling.’ Everything he said in it was true. And yet here we are in 2023, and independent storytelling is still going.”
It’s also changing with the times. The decision to combine male and female lead and supporting acting categories comes on the heels of the Gothams and the British Independent Film Awards making this move in 2022.
“It’s something we’ve been talking about for probably three years,” Welsh says.
Members of the film community, other awards shows, festivals and orgs including Women in Film and GLAAD weighed in “to see: Was this a good thing to do, or was it going to cause inadvertent problems that we weren’t thinking about? That’s why we took our time. It was ultimately based on the fact that we’ve always given awards to writers, directors, producers, editors and cinematographers without reference to gender.
“What does gender have to do with the quality of a performance? Really nothing. The other factor was the increasing part of the population that identifies as non-binary. [Not changing things] just felt, frankly, unwelcoming and not inclusive.”
Welsh says that, to his knowledge, only August Winter from the Robert Altman award winner “Women Talking” identifies as both non-binary and trans among the film or TV nominated actors. Meanwhile in film’s lead performance category, for example, eight nominees are female and two are male. In the supporting category, seven are men and three are women.
It’s a topic that’s politically sensitive for any comic, but former “Patriot Act” host and current “Daily Show” guest host Minhaj is up to the task. He swore this reporter to secrecy on a joke that deftly finds the humor in the situation without offending anyone, but if his take-no-prisoners hosting of the 2017 White House Correspondents’ Dinner is any indication, at least some sacred cows will be tipped.
“That show was so different, in the sense that it’s very much an ‘away game.’ I felt like an outsider and took Amtrak home immediately,” Minhaj says. “This feels like more of a home game, with fellow writers, producers and actors. We are all linked by our IMDb profiles, so I feel a bit more inside the room.”
And how much does he have to lose? Given its tighter budget, Minhaj won’t get anywhere near the $500,000 that Golden Globes host Jerrod Carmichael claimed to have earned during his monologue in January.
“I didn’t know people are showing their W2s and W9s onstage now. Is everyone just pulling out their TurboTax accounts?” he laughs. “I shouted out to Film Independent on my Instagram and Twitter and said, ‘Let’s get weird.’ It’s held during the day on the beach, everyone’s day drinking. I just want to have fun and let there be satire and silliness.”
It was IFC’s choice not to air the Spirits live for the first time since 1997. “They’re making business decisions that they need to make for their network, so I completely understand,” says Welsh, who talked to several networks about replacing the cabler and will continue to do so for future ceremonies — including streamers and online platforms such as Facebook and Snapchat. “My impression is that this is not about IFC. It’s a very challenging environment for linear TV, and award shows have not been doing well [there].” Indeed, the Screen Actors Guild Awards was webcast exclusively on Netflix’s YouTube channel for the first time this year; and next year, it will stream live on Netflix.
“We have the potential to reach a much broader international audience.” As for that cable licensing fee, Welsh says, “We’ve offset some of the reduced revenue with lower production costs, [since] a linear TV broadcast is very expensive.”
The Spirit Awards represent a smaller percentage of the org’s total funding than they used to, but they’re still its biggest fundraiser. The event brings in revenue through sponsorships, advertising, table sales and membership in the org’s Arts Circle, which offers different access to the ceremony at different donation levels, from $5,000 to $100,000. Tables are also sold to Arts Circle members at $20,000, $30,000 or $40,000 a pop.
Meanwhile, regular membership allows “anyone to be a voting member for $95 a year,” Welsh points out. “More than 30% of our members don’t live in California. They’re joining because they want to be part of the Spirit Awards, so that’s another major stream of revenue coming directly off the show.” He anticipates as large a crowd as its last pre-pandemic ceremony, with more than 1,200 attendees expected under a tent on the beach in Santa Monica.
After last year’s show, Film Independent’s board raised the budget cap for eligible films to $30 million to account for rising production costs, its first change since increasing it to $20 million in 2006 and $22.5 million in 2019. While Welsh emphasizes that this change wasn’t made with any particular films in mind, it did clear the way for the reported $25 million “Everything Everywhere All at Once” to lead with eight nominations, and possibly allowed “Tár” to compete with seven noms. The budget cap for the John Cassavetes Award was also increased, from $500,000 to $1 million, and there are no caps for TV series.
Film Independent fellows Siân Heder and Chloé Zhao return as honorary co-chairs as the ceremony celebrates thirty years of artist development programs.
What’s next for the Spirits? “It’s all in the conversation stage, but we’re looking at other categories that we might want to recognize,” Welsh says. “There’s been a motto of ours for a while: ‘We’re gonna need a bigger tent!’”
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