For the 26th year in a row, this Saturday, aka “Oscar Eve” will bring Film Independent’s Independent Spirit Awards, the afternoon picnic on the beach in Santa Monica that recognizes the best in independent film. This year’s ceremony, hosted by Seth Rogen, will air on the Independent Film Channel 10pm ET/PT. In anticipation, I recently enjoyed an in-depth chat with Sean McManus and Josh Welsh, both longtime pillars of Film Independent who are in their first year as Co-Presidents of the organization. We talked about the history of Film Independent, how the nominees for the Spirit Awards are selected, this year’s broadcast, and what’s in store this year  for this summer for Film Independent’s Los Angeles Film Festival.

Jackson Truax: You’ve been involved with Film Independent in a variety of capacities, Sean for thirteen years, and Josh for ten. What aspects of the organization have you seen change the most, and what have you accomplished within the organization that you’re most proud of?

Josh Welsh: I’ve seen, in my time here…the organization expand dramatically in the scope of programs that we offer. We’re here to champion the independent filmmaker. We’re here to serve filmmakers. To help them make their movies, make better movies. And to find their audiences. The primary thing that I’ve worked on in my time here has been in our artist development department… That’s the thing that’s been new that we’ve developed… We’ve been an open, active organization for many years, where any filmmaker or film lover, anyone in the industry can come join. And we remain that way. We’re very open and democratic. But in artist development, this is going on about ten years, we developed curated programs for filmmakers where people have to apply to get in. They’re very small, selective programs. We identify talented filmmakers. Either new, emerging, filmmakers or even mid-career filmmakers who want to develop their new films in the context of our programs. We help those filmmakers develop their films. Working on the scripts, going though our directors lab, the producers lab, and our Fast Track financing market where we help them refine their vision for how they’re going to get their film made, [introducing] them to financiers and moving them into production.

Sean McManus: I remember when we first started at IFP West…back in 1998. It was before Film Independent had taken on the reigns of the Los Angeles Film Festival. Josh was, I think working in our programming department part-time… It was before the board and the leadership here had made the decision to invest in creating the filmmaker labs that Josh now has built over these last ten years. I think our…full-time staff was about twelve or fourteen people. I can’t remember how [many] people worked on the Independent Spirit Awards, but I think I could count them on both hands… Fast-forward to today, and the Los Angeles Film Festival…has turned into the festival that Los Angeles deserves. And it’s only going to continue to grow… Josh and I were just up in Park City [for the Sundance film festival] a couple weeks ago. There were eleven feature films that had gone through one of the labs that Josh had been running or “Project: Involve.” And those filmmakers were debuting their work in Utah. It was fantastic to be at those screenings and see those filmmakers finally being able to get their movies seen and express themselves with audiences full of moviegoers. We have, now, a partnership with the LA County Museum of Art and Elvis Mitchell is our film curator. Now we are programming, curating cinema, not just for a week-and-a-half in June at the film festival, but now all throughout the course of the year at the Bing Theater at LACMA. In the meantime, our staff has grown. I think we have about forty full-time employees now. I think we have a hundred plus contract employees that work on the production of the Independent Spirit Awards and the Los Angeles Film Festival. What I’ve seen is a real appetite in Los Angeles from the creative community and from the film-going public to be a part of the artistry of film. And to be supportive of creating unique, cinematic experiences for the cinephiles that are in Los Angeles as well as people who just love going to see the movies.

Josh: When I started here, I think the most common question filmmakers came to us with was, “How do I get my movie made? How am I going to get my financing? Where do I get short end film stock?…” Flash forward to today…It’s much easier to make your film with digital production tools. The question that people come to us with now with is, “How do I get my film seen? Is it going to be VOD? Is it going to be online? Is it going to be theatrical? How do I find my audience?” I feel like that’s the challenge and the opportunity for us… Film Independent and LACMA, the Los Angeles Film Festival, and the Spirit Awards, they’re not substitutes for full distribution, of course, but they are ways that Film Independent can help shine a light on amazing films that need the initial exposure. By putting them in these programs, especially at the Spirit Awards, putting them front and center on a televised broadcast of the show, we can help build these films with tiny [or] non-existent market budgets [to help] audiences discover these films. That is key for us now.

Jackson: I know there’s a nominating committee that selects the Spirit Award nominees every year before the entire Film Independent membership votes. Is there anything else you can share, either about their nominating process or how they selected this year’s nominees?

Josh: There are actually seven sub-committees that comprise the committee that selects the Spirit Award nominees… There are some commonalities between the nominated films, in that, frankly they’re all exquisite. And they are artist-driven works. When you look at them as a body of selections, they are incredibly inclusive. Harmony Santana is the first transgender nominee at the Independent Spirit Awards in our history (for Best Supporting Actress for Gun Hill Road). When you look at the content of the films, when you look at the backgrounds of the filmmakers, it is a whole, broad spectrum of art and artists that are represented. I think that’s a really beautiful thing. I think the committees did a great job… They actually watch all of these films. They watch a huge number of films. It’s a major responsibility to be on one of these committees… We have a range of people. We have directors, writers, actors, critics, cinematographers, producers, people who are deeply knowledgeable about film and independent cinema. We ask them to watch a lot of films, meet and talk about them, come to a consensus, and make their recommendations, their nominations. They have autonomy in how they do that. And they have full-time jobs… They volunteer their time to do this. One thing that we do hear very often from the nominating committee members each year is what a nourishing experience it’s been for them to be able to see and watch so many terrific films as part of the process… It’s always nice to hear that.

Jackson: It’s easy to look at the films nominated for the Independent Spirit Awards, even over the course of the past few years, and see a shift towards films made by Oscar-winning filmmakers with big stars, that were already distributed or even co-funded in the beginning by so-called “mini-majors.” Are these films still truly independent? Has the nature of independent filmmaking changed? Or have you seen more of a change in the kinds of filmmaking the Spirit Awards want to recognize?

Josh: It’s an excellent question… One thing I would say at the outset, is that when you mention Oscar-nominated films at the Spirit Awards, there’s a question of which direction that’s going. I think you could say there’s been a shift at the Oscars. More independent filmmakers are being recognized there, which is fantastic. It’s something we’re very happy about. [At] the Spirit Awards, we always recognize new, emerging talent. In the Cassavetes [feature made for under $500,000], in the Best First Feature, in the Best First Screenplay [categories]. That’s a part of what we do…identifying new talent. And those particularly are coming from the smaller-budgeted films. But we also continue to recognize work of accomplished directors who, maybe ten years ago were at the Spirit Awards with their first film. We have people like Alexander Payne (nominated as director, co-producer, and co-screenwriter of The Descendants) coming back… They’re operating at a different level now. But they’re still very much part of the independent film community. They’re still making independent, artist-driven films.

Sean: If you look back on the business cycles over the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ’90, ‘00s for the film industry, I’m sure you would see the ebbs and flows and the ups-and-downs of the business in each of those decades. And that will continue for the business of filmmaking. What we recognize at Film Independent and at the Spirit Awards is the art. The definition of an independent film, we have very specific criteria that we look at in terms of eligibility for the Spirit Awards. The Spirit Awards [are] primarily about American, independent filmmakers making their movies… I think our nominees reflect the best of that. Whether you’re looking at the Best Picture category, or you’re looking at the John Cassavetes Award category.

Josh: Just speaking about this year, I am completely thrilled with the list of nominations. It’s an amazingly strong group of films. Going to your question about studio and budget…I look at this list and I’m just blown away by the number of smaller-budgeted films by brand new filmmakers that came out of the festival circuit or in theatrical over the last year. There’s an amazing group of filmmakers here, like Dee Rees [John Cassavetes nominee] with Pariah, and John Hawkes nominated [for Best Supporting Actor] for Martha Marcy May Marlene. This does not at all feel like a top-heavy budget-heavy group of films to me. This really does feel very true to the Spirit Awards and Film Independent and the types of films that we support.

Jackson: I had a mentor in college who wrote a Spirit Award nominated film and later served on the nominating committee. He said that sometimes the biggest consideration is whether or not a film was made with a truly independent spirit, regardless of all other factors. How true would you say that is? And what does it mean to have or to make a film with an Independent Spirit?

Josh: That’s true… But there are very specific eligibility requirements for the Spirit Awards. Films that are made for way upwards of $20 million… If you are able to secure that kind of funding, you’ve already won. You don’t need the Spirit Awards. So let’s shine the spotlight on the lower-budgeted films that really do need our support. One of the interesting things that did come up in the nominations process this year is…how many filmmakers are getting rebates they’re applying towards their budget for their films. And that hasn’t been defined necessarily yet in our rules… We have a postmortem every year after the Spirit Awards to talk about what’s working and what we can improve. It’s been going on ever since I’ve been here. We’ll continue to do that. And talk about, “What are the issues independent filmmakers are dealing with now in 2012?” And “How can Film Independent and the Spirit Awards support them in all of our programs?” We’ll do that with this rebate issue also. Which, I think, is a really great thing that filmmakers are finding additional funds to create their work.

Sean: So the nominating committee has a handful of criteria they use in defining independent film… Original, provocative subject matter, films that are made with an economy of means, and a percentage of financing that’s independent from the studios. Those are obviously very different kinds of things. But the committees have the latitude, and in fact the responsibility, to weigh all of those things when they’re evaluating the films. So without getting into talking about specific films…the subject matter speaks for itself… If there’s some tired, very familiar film that really doesn’t really excite people artistically, doesn’t feel like it’s challenging material, that’s not going to do too well. If it’s fully financed by a studio, that’s also going to be a factor. The one that I think is really interesting is “made with an economy of means.” Because there, it really does get into the nitty-gritty of how the films were made. And they do take that into account.  If they know that a filmmaker cobbled together their financing, and a major percent of it was from a studio or studio-based company, but the rest of it was through grants, through private equity, through tax incentives, and the film meets the other criteria, that’s going to stand out… It’s a case-by-case thing where the committee is looking at all those factors. There’s not one simple rule where you can say “independent/not independent.” You really have to look at a lot of different things.

Jackson: Seth Rogen, who is also a nominee for Best Feature for 50/50, is hosting the show this year. What went in to selecting him? What do you think he’ll bring to the show?

Sean: Seth is brilliant, and funny, and sweet, and charming. It is our delight that he is going to be hosting the show this year. The fact that he is also a nominee himself for 50/50, it’s so organic to the Spirit Awards. We’re going to have a terrific show this year and Diana Zahn-Storey, who is our long-time producer of the Spirit Awards, who has been producing, I think since the early nineties, left for two years. We were able to attract her back this year to be Executive Producer. She is putting together an incredible event and terrific broadcast… It’s going to be fun… Seth is bringing his own sense and brand of humor. There will be musical performances. It will take the irreverent, anything-can-happen, unpredictable reputation that the Spirit Awards have to a whole other level.

Jackson: The musical numbers, which for many years for an integral part of the show have been deeply missed the past couple of years. Are you going on record, saying the musical numbers will be back for this year’s ceremony?

Sean: No, we are not saying that. We’re not saying anything for the record on that (laughs). Your audience will need to tune in to see what the Spirit Awards are going to do… I will say this, the Spirit Awards are not living in the past. We’re not just replicating formulas at the show…or at Film Independent. But Josh and I being here so long, and Diana now being back on the show, we have a really good sense of the history of Film Independent. We will bring that history and that respect of our history. But we will use that to create something new and fresh that is going to keep our nominees really jazzed in the room, our guests at the Spirit Awards having a great time, and our viewers for the broadcast having something new to watch.

Jackson: After the Spirit Awards are over, the Film Independent community will continue to turn its attention to the Los Angeles Film Festival in June. The festival has been very much an alive and thriving enterprise the past two summers, but will there be any new changes, directions, or surprises for the festival under your leadership?

Josh: We have a new festival director who we’re absolutely thrilled and excited by. It’s Stephanie Allain, a fantastic producer and longtime board member at Film Independent. She has just come on to head the festival. We’re totally excited by the energy and the direction that she’s bringing to it. The short answer to your question is an emphatic “YES!” We’re already gearing up for the festival. After the Spirit Awards, this is the direction we move in, and the train has already left the station… The programmers, David Ansen, Doug Jones, Maggie Mackay are watching hundreds of films. Stephanie’s out meeting with the community and figuring out the over-all make-up of the festival. We’re thrilled to be back downtown. And we’re thrilled to have Stephanie leading it.

Sean: I think we’re still open for submissions. The deadline is right before the Spirit Awards… Our programming team is watching all the films… We only expect that the festival which runs from June 14th through June 24th is only going to go up a couple notches this year with Stephanie at the helm and David as our artistic director and Doug and Maggie and the others on our programming team. Los Angeles is the place where people from all over the world come to be a part of filmmaking and be part of movies… The Los Angeles Film Festival is a public film festival. Actually, seventy-five percent of our attendees are just citizens of Los Angeles. Not necessarily [in the] industry. It’s not like you have to be someone or get a credential or something to attend the Los Angeles Film Festival. And our tickets at the LA Film Festival are actually less than most commercial theaters in LA. So we expect that this year’s programming is going to reflect the diversity of the world. We will have all types of big films, small films, archival work, international work, shorts, narrative, documentaries…musical stuff. It’s not just coming to a screening. There are always Q&As with filmmakers after the screenings. Many times we have different events associated with each of the films. That’s one the things about Los Angeles…to make it exciting, you have to tweak every little event, every little screening, so it’s “event time.” And so it’s an experience that…whether it’s the filmmakers or the audience members, that they will remember for a lifetime. That’s just kind of the philosophy that we’ve brought to our efforts so far at the film festival and with Stephanie at the helm, we’re going to do even more of that.

Jackson: In addition to her remarkable producing career, Stephanie Allain has been a real pillar of Film Independent. As an accomplished artist and producer, what does she bring to the Los Angeles Film Festival that’s unique?

Sean: One thing that is unique is that she is filmmaker. She has the experience of what it’s like to make a film. At the LA Film Festival, our number one thing is taking care of the filmmakers. They are our superstars. She brings that perspective that will continue to infuse the entire…eleven days plus the [director’s retreat]… That’s just one of many, many experiences and skill sets that Stephanie brings to the leadership of the LA Film Festival.

Josh: I think something else that she brings, and she’s spoken about this publicly… Stephanie wants to incorporate music in the festival in a way that we really haven’t done before. We’ve always had strong musical performances at the festival… But Los Angeles is the capital of entertainment. It’s not just film. It’s music as well… And that’s a world that Stephanie’s a part of as well as the film world. You’ve seen that in her films. Certainly in things like Hustle and Flow and Black Snake Moan. In her other films as well. I think you can expect to see a strong musical presence at the festival in ways that we haven’t before. Sean and I are just thrilled about that.

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