Yet, the awards -- founded in 1984 by the nonprofit Independent Feature Project/Los Angeles to honor limited-budget movies of high originality and accomplishment -- have never been more important.
Most of 2003's good movies had an indie pedigree: Lost in Translation, American Splendor, The Station Agent, Monster, The Fog of War and more. A film qualifies as independent whether released by completely independent distributors, like Lions Gate Films, or by studio-owned, independently operated "classics" divisions like Fox Searchlight Pictures or Miramax Films.
As a result, the Spirit Awards have grown to be a major event within the burgeoning independent-film world. It's especially popular as a place where young actors, like Blue Car's Agnes Bruckner and Raising Victor Vargas' Victor Rasuk and Judy Marte, can get nominations and attention.
On this sunny yet windy Saturday afternoon, some 1,300 nominees and guests filed into a massive white circus tent on a parking lot along the beach for the 2004 presentation.
In some ways, the event was as high profile as the Oscars. Beefy security guards in black suits kept the arriving black limos moving; photographers and reporters crowded around the long red carpet as stars arrived. Beyond the security lines, fans clamored for autographs and photos, frequently blocking the beach-access sidewalk for the blasé joggers and dog-walkers trying to get through.
While some of the arriving stars were glamorous Hollywood celebrities on the order of Tom Cruise (the event's honorary chairman) or Jennifer Aniston, others were not. American Splendor's lumpy Paul Giamatti and nerdy Judah Friedlander elicited cheers of approval. No one was hipper than master of ceremonies, John Waters, a veritable divine presence as he strolled down the red carpet to get inside the tent.
Once everyone was at assigned tables and the fast-moving event was underway, Waters began with a blisteringly clever monologue. The target was the Motion Picture Association of America's attempt last year to force a ban on award-season screeners because of piracy fears. (The independent-film community went to court to stop it.)
Waters jokingly told how he let a screener of Pieces of April get away from him -- he lent it to an amputee who couldn't walk to a theater to see it -- and soon it wound up on the Internet and even playing in the background on a Bin Laden videotape.
Waters recounted how he was arrested and sent to MPAA prison ("there was doo-doo on the walls") but finally got out. As he tried to finish his speech by declaring himself "free at last," MPAA chairman Jack Valenti made a surprise cameo appearance, handcuffing Waters and leading him away. It was an uproarious start and a sign that the screener wars might be over.
Ultimately, the best part of the event was that, in some cases, we got to hear the victorious speeches and comments that Spirit Award winners like best male lead Bill Murray, best supporting male Djimon Hounsou and the electrifying best supporting female Shohreh Aghdashloo never got to make the next night at the Oscars. While Sofia Coppola did win both an Oscar and a Spirit Award for her screenplay, here she also picked up prizes for best feature and best director.
After they won, they all came to a special media tent to answer questions. The graying Murray, as dryly acerbic and witty as ever, was first asked what he said onstage when he won, since we had missed it due to other interviews. "It was all very spontaneous, but I really spoke about the people in this tent and what you mean to the traffic flow in L.A. today," he answered.
And as he jovially deflected a series of touchy questions about himself and his desire for privacy, someone else asked about his beloved Cubs. "There's an intelligent question. Thanks for uplifting the group," he replied.
The Spirit Awards overlap with the Oscars in a number of acting categories as well as best director, best cinematography (In America's Declan Quinn), best documentary (Errol Morris' The Fog of War) and best screenplay. (Morris, backstage with the media afterward, was peeved at one question. "No, I don't hang out with Robert S. McNamara," he replied, incredulous at the thought.)
But the Spirit Awards also have some unique categories to encourage newcomers: the John Cassavetes Award for features made for under $500,000 (The Station Agent), best first screenplay (The Station Agent's Thomas McCarthy), best debut performance (Thirteen's Nikki Reed). English-language films can compete for best foreign film -- Whale Rider won.
The Spirit Awards have a reputation for loose spontaneity and irreverence, as when a tough and writhing Juliette Lewis belted out a version of Robert Palmer's "Bad Case of Loving You" with lyrics adapted for Raising Victor Vargas.
And when In America director Jim Sheridan announced that Sarah Bolger, one of the adorable young sisters in his film and a supporting actress nominee, was 13 today, he asked everyone to sing "Happy Birthday." They did, as the embarrassed Bolger averted her eyes.
You don't get those moments at the Oscars. ©