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Spirit Awards 2024: A Platform for Essential Independent Films

(From Left:) Brenda Robinson, Colman Domingo, Monique Walton, Set Hernandez, Monica Sorelle, Lily Gladstone, and Josh Welsh at Spirit Award nominees brunch. Photo courtesy of Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images.

The Spirit Awards, hosted by Film Independent, will take place Sunday, February 25, and once again will be held under a tent on the beach in Santa Monica. The organization is helmed by its President, Josh Welsh, and Brenda Robinson, the Chair of the board of directors. I was pleased to be appointed recently to the Advisory Board of this dynamic nonprofit arts organizationalong with Kasi Lemmons ("Eve's Bayou") and Lulu Wang ("The Farewell")and it jogged my memory to some years back when the role of independent film had a much more difficult path. This year's Best Picture nominees at the Spirit Awards include Andrew Haigh's "All of Us Strangers," Cord Jefferson's "American Fiction," Todd Haynes' "May December," Ira Sachs' "Passages," Celine Song's "Past Lives" and Minhal Baig's "We Grown Now." 

The ten nominees for the award ceremony's gender-neutral Best Lead Performance category include Jessica Chastain ("Memory"), Greta Lee ("Past Lives"), Trace Lysette ("Monica"), Natalie Portman ("May December"), Judy Reyes ("Birth/Rebirth"), Franz Rogowski ("Passages"), Andrew Scott ("All of Us Strangers"), Teyana Taylor ("A Thousand and One"), Jeffrey Wright ("American Fiction") and Teo Yoo ("Past Lives"). "Saturday Night Live" star Aidy Bryant will MC the awards ceremony, following in the footsteps of such talents as Buck Henry, Nick Kroll, Queen LatifahJohn Mulaney, Patton Oswalt, Aubrey Plaza, Sarah Silverman and John Waters. For the complete list of this year's Spirit Award nominees, click here.

Independent film is its own animal now and the industry is all the better for it. But it wasn't always like that. I remember back to last century (the early 1990's) when my late husband Roger Ebert got in trouble with ABC for being the Master of Ceremonies at what was then called the Independent Spirit Awards. At that time, the tent was smaller, there were fewer tables of celebrities and sponsors, and the films were not the same ones vying for an Oscar, as happens more regularly these days. 

Their awards show, although energetic and vital, was more like the "little engine that could" and although it was held on Saturday, the day before the Oscars, it was broadcast on Sunday, the same day as the Oscars. At the same time! But only during the times that the Oscars were on commercial breaks! ABC thought this was sacrilegious. They paid a lot of money for those commercials and they didn't want any viewer to turn away to watch a show on the beach on a rival cable channel. Roger was called on the carpet and stood his ground defending his association with the organization. 

At the same time, Roger also occupied an official position at the head of the Oscars red carpet interviewing guests as they arrived. He said while he tried to keep the banter about the movies, occasionally one of his co-hosts would have to interject "And who are you wearing." So viewers could watch the Oscar pre-show, stay tuned for the Oscars, and then some would turn away to watch the Indie Spirits show when the Oscars took a commercial break. Not ideal, and not one that made for a chummy association. After some tumult, that changed. 

Fortunately, the little engine that could kept chugging right along. It is now a very important part of the filmmaking landscape in California, supporting a diverse group of filmmakers and hosting one of the most fun and celebrated awards shows around. And now the date of the show is not tied to the occurrence of the Oscars. They will showcase their talent next Sunday, and the Oscars will be telecast on March 17. 

Film Independent and the Spirit Awards have grown and evolved because they have remained steadfast in their mission of true transformation and representation of stories inclusive of diverse filmmakers. Supporting a global community of artists and audiences, Film Independent has year-round programs including Project Involve, a free nine-month intensive program offering up-and-coming film professionals from under-represented communities the opportunity to hone their skills and gain industry access. Past mentors who have participated in the Project Involve program include Nina Yang Bongiovi ("Fruitvale Station," "Dope"), Ava DuVernay ("Selma," "Origin"), Catherine Hardwicke ("Thirteen," "Twilight"), Derek Cianfrance ("Blue Valentine," "The Place Beyond the Pines"), Destin Daniel Cretton ("Short Term 12"), Dan Gilroy ("Nightcrawler," "The Bourne Legacy") and Alexander Payne ("Sideways," "The Holdovers").

Roger and I made a decision to provide grants to help Film Independent carry out its mission. Some of the filmmakers supported under the Roger and Chaz Ebert Fellowships have been such bright luminaries as Stephanie Adams-Santos, Sue-Ellen Chitunya, Christina Choe, Jomo Fray, Melissa Haizlip and Lulu Wang.

While speaking with RogerEbert.com in 2019, filmmaker Gregory Nava reflected on the origins of Film Independent, which stemmed from Sandra Schulberg's founding of the Independent Feature Project in 1979. "Sandra gathered all these 'lone rangers' who were off making their own movies, and she brought us all together," said Nava. "We had no resources, no funding, nothing, but the idea of getting together and sharing our experiences created an energy that made things happen. I took the idea of the IFP to Los Angeles and along with Anna Thomas, I started the IFP West, which is now Film Independent, the group that puts on the Independent Spirit Awards. It began as a group of six people in our living room, and now it’s got around 7,000 members. All of these efforts originated from a simple idea of elevating the voices of people who needed to have their stories told."

Gregory Nava continued: "The independent film movement began before Robert Redford got involved, and was characterized by pictures like Wayne Wang’s 'Chan is Missing,' Joan Micklin Silver’s 'Hester Street' and Claudia Weill’s 'Girlfriend,' in addition to his film, 'El Norte' and Spike Lee's 'She’s Gotta Have It.' John Sayles came out of that movement as well, and was later followed by people like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez."

(From left:) Dan Stern, Chaz Ebert, Kasi Lemmons and Lulu Wang.

Film Independent’s current advisory board is comprised of film industry executives, creatives and thought leaders who function as a sounding board for the board of directors and executive leadership. The current advisory board members who Lemmons, Wang and I will be joining are Ed Carroll, Don Cheadle, Bill Condon, Peter Rice, Ted Sarandos and Forest Whitaker.

Film Independent additionally announced the election of Dan Stern, the CEO and founder of Reservoir Capital Group, to its Board of Directors. Stern is also the Chairman of the Board of Film at Lincoln Center. The rest of the board of directors is comprised of Len Amato, Randy Barbato, Adriene Bowles, Mathew Cullen, Vondie Curtis Hall, Eric d’Arbeloff, Rhys Ernst, Javier Fuentes-León, Brenda Gilbert, Matthew Greenfield, Michael Helfant, Laura Kim, Sue Kroll, Karyn Kusama, David Linde, Mynette Louie, Alix Madigan-Yorkin, Ted Mundorff, Gail Mutrux, Sue Naegle, Col Needham, Catherine Park, Alan Poul, Ed Rada, Andrea Sperling, Cathy Schulman and Jeffrey Soros.

The 2024 Film Independent Spirit Awards will take place at 2pm PT on Sunday, February 25th, in Santa Monica and will stream live on Film Independent’s YouTube channel and IMDB.com.

To learn more about all the wonderful programs and services provided by Film Independent, visit their official site. 

Chaz Ebert

Chaz is the CEO of several Ebert enterprises, including the President of The Ebert Company Ltd, and of Ebert Digital LLC, Publisher of RogerEbert.com, President of Ebert Productions and Chairman of the Board of The Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation, and Co-Founder and Producer of Ebertfest, the film festival now in its 24th year.

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