The recently announced nominations for the 1998 Independent Spirit Awards suggest the complexity of the current state of things. Sponsored by the Independent Feature Project/West, the awards were conceived in 1986 to counter the Academy Awards by highlighting smaller, independent films. While the IFP/West's intentions remain the same, over the last three years the organization has seen growing similarities between its list of nominations and the Academy's; in 1996, the Academy had its "year of the independents," while the Spirit Awards are increasingly criticized for including studio pictures, or worse, for merely reacting to Hollywood.
Of course, gauging the state of independent filmmaking through the nominations is problematic. "Any notion of using prizes in this way is terrible," says indie rep John Pierson, creator and host of Split Screen on the Independent Film Channel. Pierson has advocated the abolition of festival prizes, specifically at the Sundance Film Festival, and is wary of overemphasizing nominations as proof of anything. "The nominating process is very self-conscious, and there is an attempt to represent a wide spectrum in order to maintain some sense of purity. Then The Apostle wins everything anyway."
That said, the nominations, ranging from the six for the critically acclaimed Affliction to the three for Lodge Kerrigan's as yet undistributed Claire Dolan, do chart an interesting terrain. There is an ever-widening space between high-end studio pictures and the do-it-yourselfers. The indie sphere has dominated this middle for several years, but many argue that the studios, having copped an indie aesthetic and politics, now dominate. Last year, Twentieth Century Fox, for example, produced the almost embarrassingly political Bulworth, a creepy portrait of male anxiety in There's Something About Mary and Terrence Malick's profoundly Romantic The Thin Red Line. DreamWorks had its critique of capitalism in Small Soldiers, while Paramount examined the media's omnipotence in The Truman Show and the deleterious effects of greed in A Simple Plan. And Disney, the studio of studios, produced Rushmore, one of the most celebrated films of the year and, strangely enough, one of the Spirit Awards' nominees for best director. (Rushmore was ostensibly nominated under the "uniqueness of vision" guideline, and indicates how maddeningly the nominations try to be all things to all people.)
Corresponding to the studios' copycat impetus is a strong drive for upward mobility among many independent companies. Live Entertainment reinvented itself last year as Artisan Entertainment, a production and distribution company whose first release was the black-and-white, no-budget Pi. The company's slate now includes Steven Soderbergh's The Limey (Soderbergh's last film, Out of Sight, was with Universal) and David Koepp's A Stir of Echoes (Koepp's credits include the screenplay for Jurassic Park). Artisan is filling a crucial role by releasing offbeat indies, but is stretching its muscles with bigger projects.
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Similarly, Good Machine, the company that since 1991 has produced some of the most interesting and subversive low-budget films around (such as Todd Haynes' Poison), recently released Happiness, and has been producing more expensive films -- the company, for example, will produce Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, a $38 million film.
David Linde, the company's co-president, insists that Good Machine will continue to help first-timers and attributes the budgetary increases to organic evolution. "In some ways, we're just following the paths of our filmmakers," he says. "We have relationships with filmmakers and distributors, and both of these grow over time." The question is, will risky films such as Poison be replaced by safer bets such as Ed Burns' No Looking Back?
The Spirit Awards attend to the edgier sphere with the Someone To Watch nominations, highlighting overlooked filmmakers of singular vision. This year they include Tony Barbieri's One, Lynn Herschman Leeson's Conceiving Ada, Eric Tretbar's Snow and David Williams' 13, all of which push the boundaries of contemporary cinema; only Conceiving Ada has a distributor, which illustrates the frustrating state of both distribution and exhibition, as well as the dire need for strong indie companies to keep their slates as broad as possible.
So, yes, the studios are making interesting "independent" films -- independent at least in vision -- and several smaller independent companies are making big movies. Many critically acclaimed films, meanwhile, are being left undistributed or are foundering at the box office, while the highest-grossing 1998 film was Armageddon. Are box-office receipts a better measure of the state of things? Probably not, but the allure of large grosses is certainly influencing many indies, while the lack of profits for the best studio projects may unfortunately spark a brisk retreat. Despite the Spirit Award nominations, we still get what we pay for.