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Film Independent Officials Explain How Their New TV Spirit Awards Will Work, and What’s Indie TV

Film Independent President John Welsh at the 2017 Spirit Awards

(Courtesy of Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Film Independent’s decision to add TV categories to its annual Spirit Awards was widely cheered on Tuesday by network, studio and streamer executives, who now have another opportunity to campaign their prestige projects for a respected prize.

But here’s perhaps the biggest game changer: The Spirit Awards will only honor new series, limiting the competition to shows in their freshman seasons, via the best new scripted series and best new non-scripted or documentary series categories. That distinction means returning anthology series, even if they boast a new cast and storyline (like the fourth edition of FX’s “Fargo”) won’t be eligible.

The Spirit Awards’ three new TV performer categories — male performance in a scripted series, female performance in a scripted series and ensemble cast in a scripted series — will also be limited to first-year programs only.

None of the major TV awards — including the Emmys, Golden Globes and SAG Awards — have a new TV series category. But Film Independent president John Welsh and the org’s associate director of nominations, Setu Raval, tell Variety that the organization felt it was important to recognize TV series at the start of their runs.

“There’s just an excitement in a debut season for any series,” Raval said. “It’s really that moment where the creators have that opportunity to step outside some of the boundaries of television and be able to create some original content. And so we wanted to be able to support the creators in those initial moments as they begin their series.”

It’s also recognition that so much of “prestige TV” is now found in the one-and-done world of limited series. And the decision eliminates the problem of the same series dominating the awards every year. By narrowing the contest to just freshman shows, the competition will be completely new each year (mirroring the nature of film awards, which are also refreshed annually).

“There’s definitely going to be some gray and a little bit of conversation as we dive into this,” Raval added. “But the goal is to really recognize the series in their first year.”

Additionally, the Spirit Awards will avoid the comedy vs. drama classification debate by eliminating genre splits all together, in both the series and acting categories. “I think it also mirrors the film side as well,” Raval said. “We have a number of different genre styles and types of filmmaking and types of filmmakers from around the world that are considered in that one pot. So you always end up with a list that’s quite eclectic.”

But what is “indie” when it comes to television? Welsh said that very question is one of the reasons that Film Independent had avoided adding TV categories until now. In the film competition, there’s a budget cap ($22.5 million), but there’s no such limit on the TV side. And where “indie film” usually starts out without any corporate involvement, TV development usually begins with a major network or studio attached.

“We really have spent a lot of time thinking about that,” Welsh said. “The business of independent film and the business of TV are so different in the way you can get something made. In independent film there is that classic model of you make it yourself for a nickel or on credit cards or whatever. And in TV it’s more corporate. In the way things are greenlit, the power is generally not in the hands of the individual creators, especially when it’s somebody young and starting out. Also the budgets of TV, even in low-budget TV are significantly higher for the most part than if you’re self-financing a feature. We’re aware of all that, we certainly talked it through.”

But ultimately, Welsh said, Film Independent felt they needed to recognize the TV now being made by indie filmmakers like Justin Simien (“Dear White People”) and shows like “Fleabag,” which he identified as a natural contender had the Spirit Awards been honoring TV in that show’s first season. He also pointed to “Gentefied,” the Netflix project from Marvin Lemus and Linda Yvette Chávez, both of whom came out of Film Independent’s Screenwriting Lab.

With no budgetary guidelines, Welsh said it would come down to a bit of an indie “smell test” that involves “aesthetic, original provocative subject matter, unique voice and diversity. The types of work that we celebrate on the film side, and TV side, they’re going to look very similar…Somehow these singular voices are finding their way into television and making a mark on the culture. We are remiss if we don’t celebrate that.”

Among obvious early frontrunners for a slot: Michaela Coel’s “I May Destroy You” and Luca Guadagnino’s “We Are Who We Are,” both from HBO; Amazon Prime Video’s Steve McQueen anthology series “Small Axe”; Hulu’s “Monsterland” (from Annapurna TV); Showtime’s “The Good Lord Bird” (premiere episode directed by Albert Hughes); AMC’s “Gangs of London” and more. The eligibility window for the first TV-centric Spirit Awards is anything that premiered between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31.

And that brings up another point of eligibility: Although this is the Independent Spirit Awards, purely indie projects — without any major broadcast, cable or streaming distribution — need not apply.

Episodes “must have been broadcast, transmitted or available via a commercial streaming platform within the eligibility window. Series must be available via network, basic cable, pay cable, pay television, pay-per-view, interactive cable, broadband, or digital distribution through streaming platforms,” according to Film Independent’s TV submission rules.

“We want the content to be available for audiences,” Raval said. “It’s the same for film, we ask that the film either play a qualifying festival or they had some sort of release. It is important to us that the projects that we’re celebrating have worked to reach an audience, and then a lot of times their audience expands after being nominated or recognized through the Spirit Awards.”

Submissions must also be at least 18 minutes in length (which eliminates Quibi entries) and a minimum of three episodes, which means two-part miniseries aren’t eligible.

In a world where the lines between film and TV are blurring, Welsh said he’s not looking to enter that discussion.

“It’s not an interesting debate,” he said. “We’re less concerned with whether what they do is called a film or a series. What we’re looking for is creative independence and visual storytelling. We’re excited. I think we’re going to learn a lot. Maybe everything will go perfectly, or maybe next year we’ll say, ‘we need to tweak a couple things here.’ I’m very curious what’s going to happen. What that landscape’s going to look like when everything comes in and we’re watching stuff and deliberating, is totally unknown at this point.”

Nominations for next year’s Spirit Awards will be announced on Jan. 26. The 36th Film Independent Spirit Awards (now with TV!) will be held on April 24, and air live on IFC.

Variety's Michael Schneider contributed to this post.

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