Let's say you're an actor who's delivered an exceptional performance in an Oscar-bait movie. Normally, your winter calendar is loaded with awards-show stops: the Golden Globes, the SAGs and, if you're Lindsay Lohan, the Razzies. But there's only one event where you can ride your bicycle to the ceremony, as Hilary Swank did a few years ago. It's called the Spirit Awards, and it's what you might think of as the anti-Oscars. This gala honoring independent film is held in a tent right on the beach in Santa Monica. There's no dress code; the 1,400 guests often wear jeans and flip-flops. There's no orchestra, because the show's organizers can't afford one, and no time limit on acceptance speeches. The Spirit Awards are so low key they don't even have indoor plumbing, though the deluxe Porta Potties do come equipped with oversize mirrors—this is still Hollywood, after all. "I haven't hosted anything ever in my life. Oh, 'Saturday Night Live,' but that's not really hosting," says Rainn Wilson ("The Office"), who hosts this year's show on Feb. 23. "But I love how loose and ramshackle it is, and crazy. It's the one awards show where the stars that are there get to be themselves. It's not about the red carpet. It's about the work."
If you haven't gotten into the Spirit yet, there are some good reasons for that. The ceremony airs on the Independent Film Channel, with a "viewing audience of 837," says Wilson. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Because the stakes are so low, Hollywood lets its well-coifed hair down a bit. The acceptance speeches are sometimes so profanity-laced, you'd think Chris Rock wrote them. But like the indie sleeper hit "Juno," the Spirit Awards might be on the verge of hitting it big, and not just because the show will definitely go on, thanks to a waiver from the striking Writers Guild of America. As the awards (and the movies they celebrate) gain more visibility, the real king of the hill—the Oscars—is showing its wrinkles, and as Joan Rivers would tell you, there's nothing worse in Hollywood.
It's not much of a stretch to imagine the Spirits competing with the Oscars' spotlight. "Juno" is up for best picture at both shows. Its director, Jason Reitman, is also a double nominee, as is its star Ellen Page. Last year the Spirit committee nominated Ryan Gosling for "Half Nelson" as well as the films "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Pan's Labyrinth" before members of the Academy were even buzzing about them. The awards show has an impressive record of spotting emerging talent. Renée Zellweger ("Love and a .45"), Adrien Brody ("Restaurant") and Ang Lee ("The Wedding Banquet") all received career bumps with early Spirit nominations in films that mainstream Hollywood largely overlooked.
Maybe it's just that independent film has become a steppingstone of sorts. American independent films used to be defined as movies made outside the studio system, but now the studios have acquired their own indie-film divisions: Fox Searchlight, Paramount Vantage, etc. For the 2006 show, the Spirits had to revise their criteria to say they won't consider films with a budget of more than $20 million ("Gone Baby Gone," "There Will Be Blood" and "Into the Wild" were all too expensive to make this year's shortlist). And the Spirits have also added a category to honor films made for under $500,000. Indie has become so mainstream, you have to wonder if the word "indie" isn't just becoming a marketing buzzword. Consider: of the five Oscar nominees for best picture, the biggest hit at the box office is "Juno," with more than $110 million. "You've got to remember, when I was young the movie that won the Oscars was 'Around the World in 80 Days'," says John Waters, a four-time Spirit host. "Movies are hipper now, period. Where I live in Baltimore, there are only four movie theaters. Every one of them is basically an art theater. But what do I know? In Baltimore, we still have one porn theater left, for people who are too poor to own a VCR."
The Academy would do well to borrow more of the Spirits' spirit. The entire telecast clocked in at less than two hours last year—no blather, no commercials, no problem. The stars can wander around as they please; a camera even pans to those naughty smokers outside. And some of them are very naughty. "My favorite stories are about people doing things backstage they wouldn't want me talking about," says Diana Zahn-Storey, the show's executive producer. "I wonder why they couldn't read the teleprompter onstage. Maybe it was because they were stoned." And unlike at almost every other red-carpeted, fan-crazy, star shindig, actors here have to check their egos at the tent door. "I get calls from publicists: Can you send a car, get makeup and hair, will you fly them in? I just laugh," says Zahn-Storey. "Sure, after I change the toilet paper in the bathrooms, I'll get right on that." Oops, make that in the Porta Potties.