Independent Spirit Awards Embrace the Abnormal for Pandemic-Era Ceremony

Since 1984, the Film Independent Spirit Awards have provided a counterpoint to the Hollywood establishment’s back-patting: a scrappy celebration staged in a tent on the beach, anointing future visionaries rather than formalizing the status of industry titans. But in a year, and an industry, that has itself been so disrupted from business as usual, the only challenge that Josh Welsh and the team at Film Independent faced bigger than reacting to the seismic changes in film and television distribution was deciding how to celebrate them responsibly — if at all.

“On the one hand, you might say, with everything going on in the world, what could be more frivolous than an awards show?” the Film Independent president acknowledges to Variety. “But I really do believe that award shows have a special significance this year.

“For one thing, they allow us to give shape to what feels like a really shapeless year. The regular press and cultural conversation around movies and TV has been so amorphous, even though what we’re watching is such a big part of our lives. And so I think it’s really important to have the awards to take a moment to say: these are the films of the year.”

For the 36th Independent Spirit Awards, that year includes the first two months of 2021, to accommodate films whose release was delayed because of COVID-19. The organization additionally expanded its categories to include television productions and performances, reflecting a rapidly shifting landscape in which not only are films increasingly securing distribution on the small screen, but also independent storytellers are forging new territory on streaming platforms and via longform storytelling.

On April 24, “Saturday Night Live” cast member Melissa Villaseñor will host a ceremony unlike any Film Independent has mounted before, and possibly unlike viewers have seen before, combining live and prerecorded segments to reflect the unconventional tone of the previous 14 months — and hopefully, minimize the technical glitches that plagued shows such as the Golden Globes earlier this year.

“Initially, I have to admit, we were quite naïve at the beginning of the pandemic,” Welsh says. “Right after the [ceremony] last year, when we saw what was happening, the Spirit Awards were supposed to take place in February of this year, and we thought, ‘Well, everything will be fine by then.’ ”

Welsh says figuring out what the show would look like required flexibility and nimbleness, even from a team comfortable working with one another after many years.

“It’s just been a constant series of pivots and adapting to new realities to figure out what we’re able to do safely,” Welsh says.

The first thing that Welsh and the team decided was to not try and make the show look normal — to try and cheat it to look like guests and nominees are in a tent on the beach. He empathized with other organizations trying to retain the in-person glitz of an awards show while shifting to a largely virtual ceremony.

“There’s a lot to figure out, but we watch them all,” he says. “But the main thing we’ve all been experiencing on our side is you have to be adaptable and flexible and ready to pivot on a moment’s notice. It’s kind of exhilarating.

“Throughout all of it, you want the show to be fun. And you also want it to reflect the spirit of the organization. Film Independent, we don’t take ourselves too seriously — it’s fun, it’s irreverent — but we take the work really seriously. So as long as we capture that, and sort of the moment that we’re all living through, if that comes through in the show I’ll be really happy.”

Leaning into the possibilities of hosting an event in a virtual space, Film Independent decided to build out an online platform that would allow more people to view and participate in the awards ceremony, facilitating community building and fundraising, two historically essential aspects of the show.

“At the same time the Spirit Awards are being broadcast, we’re going to have a virtual Spirit Awards taking place online,” Welsh says. “When we realized we couldn’t do the physical event, we were like, ‘Well, it’s great that we can do the broadcast, but we’ve lost all of that ability to support Film Independent year-round.’

“Historically, in real life, the way to attend the Spirit Awards is to buy a table at the show. And it’s a fundraiser, so tables tend to be pretty expensive. This year, we’re opening it up much wider for the very first time,” he explains. “So we’re selling tables. We’re also selling high-level individual tickets that come with a special experience for people to buy at that level, but we’re also going to sell a very affordable ticket where anybody can come if they want to watch the show on the platform and have that enhanced community experience. People can be together, you can chat internally to the room, we’re going to have a DJ — there’s going to be lots of elements happening where you’re not just watching TV. I hope we have a much bigger audience than the usual 1,300 people who are in the tent on the beach.”

If it was already tough to follow Aubrey Plaza’s back-to-back performances at the 34th and 35th Independent Spirit Awards, 2021 host Villaseñor shoulders the additional responsibility of stitching together this year’s potentially unwieldy combination of live and prerecorded elements, both of which she appears in. Thankfully, her pedigree as a “Saturday Night Live” cast member, as well as her regular podcast and experience as a stand-up comedian, more than prepares her for the ceremony’s unprecedented challenges.

“I’m comparing hosting to my stand-up,” Villaseñor says. “Being solo up there on stage, I’m comfy in that. And I think even on ‘SNL’ when I’m playing myself, like when I did Dolly Parton, I was still myself when I was speaking and everything — that’s right in my favorite zone. I like meshing everything together.” That said, she is mildly concerned about the absence of reactions from a crowd.

“I think the only awkward thing will probably be I love to hear laughs — but thankfully I do laugh at myself,” she says. “That’s what my podcast is called, ‘Laughing With Myself,’ because my goal is to make myself laugh and then usually my friends crack up too. So I think I’ll be fine, but I would love to hear some chuckles. Hopefully I get the cameraman — that might be my goal.”

With nominated films including “Minari,” “Nomadland” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” not to mention fare such as “I May Destroy You” and “Small Axe” in the television categories, Villaseñor acknowledges the challenge of trying to draw humor out of some extremely serious subject matter. But she says that her comedic sensibility has always gravitated toward making herself the punchline, not her inspiration.

“I feel like a lot of the films are pretty emotional. Like ‘Promising Young Woman,’ it’s hard to find the jokes because there’s a lot of heavy stuff,” she says. “But there’s definitely some good stuff that connects with the movies, and when parodying a movie scene or making a joke, it’s always placed on me. I’ve always tried to do that with my comedy — versus making the joke about a film or a person.”

As the Hollywood community — and the world at large — slowly returns to a semblance of normalcy, awards shows offer an opportunity not just to honor art that spoke to, and offered a reprieve from, the experiences of last year, but herald a larger sensation of connectivity and hope after a seemingly indefatigable season of isolation and loss.

As the ceremony approaches, Welsh says that the Spirit Awards happily shoulder both the challenge and opportunity of encapsulating the recent past, and celebrating an optimistic future.

“It’s been a year of such heightened emotions, the feeling of grief and rage and sadness, but also these weird moments of euphoria. And the thing that I want us to lean in on with the Spirit Awards is the element of joy,” Welsh says. “And I think it is totally appropriate to take a moment to celebrate the spirit of independent film — and that the creative spirit is undiminished here. And that’s what you’ll see in the show.”

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