Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu

Alejandro G. Iñárritu (credit: Richard Harbaugh / ©A.M.P.A.S.)

Hollywood is really good at celebrating itself. Oscar week in Los Angeles, the series of shows and soirees that cap awards season, drives that point home. In fact, in recent years the kudos have increasingly seemed to be tied to the industry’s perception of its own fate. During a time of change for both industry and audiences alike, Hollywood increasingly uses its Oscar stage to honor movies about movies. Three years ago it was The Artist, two years ago Argo, and this year Best Picture winner Birdman, a film about an aging superhero-movie star with an identity crisis, took Hollywood’s top prize.

Is Hollywood itself struggling with the same grave insecurities facing Birdman’s Riggan Thomson?

“You’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what, you’re right. You don’t!” Riggan Thomson’s daughter (played by Emma Stone) screams at her dad (Michael Keaton) in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. “It’s not important, okay? You’re not important. Get used to it.”

Twin ceremonies, the Independent Spirit Awards this past Saturday and then the Academy Awards on Sunday, capped the nearly six-month-long season of prognosticating and jockeying for end-of-year attention. Strategists began positioning some films for consideration more than a year before Oscar weekend, but this year both shows celebrated the very same film as the best of 2014.

Iñárritu, the second Mexican filmmaker in as many years to win the Best Director Oscar, worried aloud on Saturday that awards are important because they reward niche movies, made outside the big Hollywood system, that are relegated mainly to film festivals and art houses.

“As many animals in nature we are threatened to become species in extinction,” Iñárritu said on stage while accepting his Spirit Award. “I think that all these films, all of us, share something. All of them are born from a need to be expressed, something to say, an individual expression. I think all these films were an act of love.”

These days, Hollywood movies seem to fall into two broad categories: movies for mass audiences and movies for awards. In remarks throughout the weekend here in Los Angeles, winners and losers warned of a particularly fragile moviemaking ecosystem and a widening gap between the movies that ticket buyers see in droves and those that are spotlighted during awards season. To many, the lengthy season of introducing and celebrating awards worthy films that begins in earnest at the late summer and early autumn film festivals is vital to the survival of the movies that are aimed at specialized audiences. It also gives the industry a chance to fluff their feathers with pride.

“I think we'd all be remiss if we didn't thank Narcissus right now,” Michael Keaton quipped as his awards season came to a close on Saturday with the presentation of his best actor prize at the Independent Spirit Awards. “And that award, the mirror thing, is just genius.”

Awards attention specifically for Indiewood films affords a level of status and prestige unattainable within mainstream Hollywood and also helps smaller movies gain a foothold in an industry that is quickly shifting in favor of tentpoles and established story brands.

Julianne Moore

Julianne Moore (credit: Matt Petit / ©A.M.P.A.S.)

“We’re hoping that we’ll be the story,” iconic indie producer Christine Vachon from boutique New York shop Killer Films said of her latest film during a conversation at the Sunset Tower Hotel in West Hollywood, a tony spot typically home to Hollywood’s heavyweights. On this day it was opened up to indie filmmakers, producers and industry, many from the East Coast. Vachon’s current contender with producing partner Pam Koffler, Still Alice, was saluted with a cocktail party to tout the best actress nominations for Julianne Moore. The actress, who made her name as a champion of independent films in the Nineties, won the best actress award from both the Oscars and Spirit Awards this weekend.

“It’s amazing,” Vachon continued, “It is our 20th anniversary, this is a typical Killer film, a small film that we’ve nurtured and loved for a long time and to see it come this far is just extraordinary.” The attention for the indie film will help them make more money for this movie and bolster Vachon and Koffler’s chances of securing talent and financing for future passion projects.

“It makes us able to say, ‘Look: we bet on the right horses,’” Vachon said of the crucial awards acknowledgement prior to her movie winning two big prizes over the weekend. “If we say this movie is going to go all the way, you know we might be right.”

Julianne Moore said on Saturday that she was fortunate to have started in independent film more than two decades ago at the beginning of a movement. “[Independent film] shaped my life and my career,” she remarked while accepting her Spirit Award this weekend. She won the same award at the Oscars on Sunday.

Today, Julianne Moore’s agreeing to star in an indie film can assure that it gets made and marketed.

In fact, for Vachon and Koffler the awards attention has become a core component of their business plan since their 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry earned Hilary Swank an Oscar. Just a few years ago, though, indie nominees would win awards on Saturday at the Spirit Awards but step aside to let top Hollywood talent take the top prizes at the Oscars. Now, as Hollywood has doubled down on comic-book projects, filmmakers see awards as a crucial cry for dwindling attention.

“Independent film and everybody here today are holdouts against a tsunami of superhero movies that have swept over this industry,” Nightcrawler writer-director Dan Gilroy reacted at the Spirit Awards in Santa Monica. Top prizes at that event, which is staged inside a cavernous beachside tent, mirrored most of the big winners at the Oscars in Hollywood the following day. “We have survived and we have thrived and I think that’s true spirit.”

There was a time that the Independent Spirit Awards, now 30 years old, were seen as a quirky, rebellious sibling to the more polished Academy Awards ceremony the next day. Now, they are quickly becoming the engine that drives the movies that Hollywood hopes will have a lasting impact, even if those films are released in a limited number of cinemas and wider audiences are forced to watch them in their home theaters or on personal screens.

Jack Black

Jack Black  (credit: Valerie Durant / ©A.M.P.A.S.)

Saturday’s Spirit Award ceremony skewered the indie industry for going mainstream while Sunday’s Oscar ceremony sent a mixed message because, like Riggan Thomson, Hollywood seems rather tortured by its own future. The Academy Awards opened with a rousing musical number aimed at reminding audiences about the magic of cinema but even for an optimistic soul, host Neil Patrick Harris’s rah-rah moment, “to celebrate and hopefully fall in love with the movies all over again,” seemed blindly nostalgic next to Jack Black’s more realistic assessment of the movie business that expanded on the comments made one day earlier by Dan Gilroy.

“This industry’s in flux, it’s run by mucky-mucks pitching tents for tentpoles and chasing Chinese bucks,” Jack Black sang darkly. “Opening with lots of zeroes, all we get are superheroes!” He continued: “In a world where our brains are becoming machines, the only screens we’re watching are the screens in our jeans. Screens in our jeans!” TV ratings for the Oscars dropped rather dramatically this year apparently due to a slate of Best Picture nominees with almost entirely indie or specialty roots. Engagement on Twitter during the show, though, only fell slightly.

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, considered a front-runner for awards this year, came up short all weekend, but the director seized the moment to call attention to the delicate nature of indie film. On Thursday night here in Los Angeles, Linklater shifted his spotlight to support the Austin Film Society. A Vanity Fair party held in his honor was recast as a benefit for the non-profit organization that he launched in Texas nearly 30 years ago to celebrate classic cinema on the big screen and support the work of emerging filmmakers. On Saturday, he decided to forgo attending the Spirit Awards where he was named Best Director, and Ethan Hawke accepted the award for his frequent collaborator. Yet it was Linklater’s Austin compatriot Rebecca Campbell, head of Austin Film Society, who spoke to the value that the attention for Linklater and Boyhood is having back in Texas.

“AFS has received more media attention from outside of Texas because of Boyhood’s success than we’ve ever experienced. The widespread coverage and social media chatter has focused on our exhibition and artist services programs,” Campbell explained, noting that the spotlight has underscored the importance of bolstering film culture and nurturing new filmmakers. However, she added: “The message of those stories is about economic impact and celebrity, whereas Boyhood has shifted the focus to the art of film and truly independent filmmaking. Because of Boyhood, AFS and organizations like ours have a new way of talking about what we do.”

Other producers and directors in Los Angeles this weekend expressed a hope that the awards attention garnered by their work would not only help them progress in their own careers but also open the door wider for many others.

“I started writing this movie some 10 years ago as an impulse because I didn’t really see my story out there in the culture,” began Justin Simien, director of Dear White People, accepting the Best First Screenplay Prize at the Spirit Awards. “I didn’t see myself reflected back at me in the films that I loved, in the stories that resonated for me . . . This means so much to me because it feels to me like I do belong in the culture.” Speaking to the filmmakers listening, he emphasized: “If you have a story and you don’t see yourself in the culture, please put yourself there, because we need you, we need to see the world from your eyes.”

After the ceremony, Simien was sipping a cocktail alongside producer Effie Brown at the post-show nominees party, held in a bungalow on the beach. He said that all of the recent attention for the film had been crucial. He’d reached a wider audience and hoped to inspire others thanks to spotlight of awards season. But with the ceremony over, he was ready to move on.

“I just want to work on my next movie,” he laughed.


30th Independent Spirit Awards

Best Feature: Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

Best Director: Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Best Screenplay: Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler

Best First Feature: Nightcrawler, directed by Dan Gilroy

Best First Screenplay: Justin Simien, Dear White People

John Cassavetes Award: Land Ho!, directed by Aaron Katz & Martha Stephens

Best Supporting Female: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Best Supporting Male: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Best Female Lead: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Best Male Lead: Michael Keaton, Birdman

Robert Altman Award: Inherent Vice

Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman

Best Editing: Tom Cross, Whiplash

Best International Film: Ida (Poland), directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

Best Documentary: CITIZENFOUR, directed by Laura Poitras

Special Distinction Award: Foxcatcher, directed by Bennett Miller

87th Academy Awards

Best Picture: Birdman

Best Actor: Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Best Actress: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Best Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Birdman

Best Original Screenplay: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. & Armando Bo, Birdman

Best Adapted Screenplay: Graham Moore, The Imitation Game

Best Foreign Language Film: Ida, Poland

Best Animated Feature: Big Hero 6

Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman

Best Film Editing: Tom Cross, Whiplash

Best Sound Editing: Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman, American Sniper

Best Sound Mixing: Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins, and Thomas Curley, Whiplash

Best Production Design: Adam Stockhausen (Production Design) and Anna Pinnock (Set Decoration), The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Design: Milena Canonero, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Original Score: Alexandre Desplat, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Original Song: “Glory” by Common and John Legend, Selma

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Visual Effects: Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter, and Scott Fisher, Interstellar

Best Documentary Short Subject: Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1

Best Documentary Feature: CITIZENFOUR

Best Short Film, Live Action: The Phone Call

Best Short Film, Animated: Feast