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Spirit Awards at 30: Inside the rowdiest awards show in Hollywood

SANTA MONICA, CA - FEBRUARY 26:  Director John Waters attends the 2011 Film Independent Spirit Awards hosted by Jameson Irish Whiskey at Santa Monica Beach on February 26, 2011 in Santa Monica, California.  (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images For Jameson) *** Local Caption *** John Waters
SANTA MONICA, CA - FEBRUARY 26: Director John Waters attends the 2011 Film Independent Spirit Awards hosted by Jameson Irish Whiskey at Santa Monica Beach on February 26, 2011 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images For Jameson) *** Local Caption *** John Waters
Michael Buckner/Getty Images For Jameson

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Thirty years ago some of the best and brightest in the film world gathered for the first time to honor their own. No, not at the Oscars. That other ceremony, known as the Independent Spirit Awards. Loud, lewd and soaked in alcohol, the Spirit Awards have always played at being rebellious — or at least, anti-Hollywood-establishment.

There’s really no mistaking a Spirit Awards show. Held in a big tent that temporarily takes over a parking lot on the beach in Santa Monica, it’s a lively, drunken, delightfully profane affair where a host like Sarah Silverman openly talked about how her "vagina smells like a mountain breeze.” And winners like Mickey Rourke have managed to make at least one presenter feel uncomfortable before mentioning his recently deceased pet dog and breaking the microphone.

Dead dog speech

But it wasn’t always this lively. Back in 1984, Peter Coyote hosted what they called "the FINDIEs" — short for Friends of Independents. It was a luncheon to acknowledge overlooked smaller films, held at a restaurant that’s long since gone out of business. There wasn’t any live TV broadcast or red carpet, but there was the tradition of not cutting off anyone’s speeches.

What a difference 30 years, a new name and a host like Andy Samberg can make.

“We’re all here because we get it, we want movies with real stories… we’re a community of artists, and a community we have one thing to say to Hollywood, f--- you!” Samberg told the tented attendees in 2013.

Andy Samberg Spirit Awards video

“The Spirit Awards are really, it’s a really loose environment” says Josh Welsh, the president of Film Independent, the people who put on the awards. “The tone is important, the SAs are fun, a lot of the same talent is in the room as that other awards show, they might have a glass of tequila or red wine."

Welsh admits that although the show is billed as a celebration of all things indie, what actually defines an independent movie can be murky. This year, all but one of the five Spirit nominees is also up for the Best Picture Oscar. A nominated Spirit Awards film can cost more than $20 million.

Welsh says,

"Seeing big stars in the room, Bruce Willis was there for the Wes Anderson film, to see stars taking risks in indie fair is fantastic, but I want to see the younger talent, people no one knows."

Jennifer Caserta runs IFC (the Independent Film Channel) where the show is broadcast. She says it’s always a bit of a relief to see a couple of big names making the nominee cut.

"For the broadcast, it does absolutely make sense that you have celebrity. It’s the indie world celebrity, and of course the presenter roster is very rich, and that’s what makes an award show too, having presenters who are big names."

Like most awards shows, this event also serves as a fundraiser. Forty percent of Film Independent’s yearly budget is made on this afternoon. So it’s a balancing act — keep enough stars in the audience to keep people watching, while giving a boost to the fledgling careers of filmmakers and actors no one has heard of just yet.

An example of an up-and-coming actor who took home some Spirit Awards hardware is actor Derek Luke. When he won for "Antwone Fisher," he said in his acceptance speech that just four years beforehand he'd been waiting tables at the Spirit Awards.

And this year, Justin Simian, the writer-director of "Dear White People," has gone from working this same event as a PR underling to hoping to hear his name called for Best First
Feature. Simian says just being nominated has boosted his stock, but not in the way you might think.

"People are more interested in what I have to say, and like for me to talk more about things… I can’t say my world is turned upside-down, I’m just trying to write and direct movies. There just seem to be more people interested in that as well, it feels like I have a few more allies. It doesn’t feel like the end of anything, it just feels like now I can get to work."

In some ways, the Spirit Awards are just like any other awards show. There are musical numbers or parody sing-alongs, industry specific monologues and there’s even an elder statesman: John Waters.

“I’ve been to all of them," says Waters. “I know for 'Hairspray' we didn’t win anything, and Ricki Lake was 'Make way for the losers, here we come.'"

This’ll be the first year Waters won’t be in attendance. In the past he’s hosted the show — he was even fake arrested by Jack Valenti on stage in a bit about illegal screeners. And the so-called Bob Hope of indie cinema has his own ideas about how to keep the show edgy.

"It’s so near the airport I always think they could sneak Roman Polanski in and he could win and they could sneak him out of the country, I always thought that would be a coup for the Spirit Awards."

And while that sounds far-fetched, remember, this is the show that has featured a plethora of words you can't say on the radio, copious on-stage drinking and at least one instance of presenter-on-presenter breast and crotch groping.

Which is to say, don't put it past them.

For the full list of this year's Spirit Award nominees, go here.

For more info about watching the show Saturday on IFC, go here.

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