If this were any other awards season — one not dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic — pulling together a list of “what you missed on TV” bits from any major awards show would generally be an easy swing. Spot who ducked out early after their category was announced, mention any major mishaps near the restrooms and chat up a few actors near the valet to ask about post-party plans.

But since this year is still dominated by pandemic restrictions, Film Independent presented an all virtual production of its annual Spirit Awards, meaning there was no big white tent on the beach in Santa Monica, no star-gazing against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean and only a virtual karaoke after-party hosted by a popular queen from RuPaul’s Drag Race. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t eventful.

Film Independent found a way to pull off a lively production by teaming with Looped for an at-home streaming experience for those not tuned in to the ceremony on broadcast partner IFC. It kicked off at 6:30 p.m. PT with 30 minutes saved for a preshow cocktail event. There were breakout rooms that offered guests the chance to mix and mingle with other film industry insiders (to beats by DJ Dan). Sponsors FIJI Water and Bulleit Frontier Whiskey hosted groups of guests, The Wine Bar featured a Napa winemaker sharing pairing secrets, a Cinephile Trivia Tent offered up fast film facts and other community tents (The Pier, The Bungalow, Carousel, The Quiet Cabana and The Beach) served as conversation hubs where topics ranged from favorite films to quarantine travel.

“All we need is Josh Welsh to say hi,” said one guest. And like magic, the Film Independent president then appeared in a taped segment that saw him loitering near the Santa Monica Pier, not far from where the Spirit Award tent would typically be standing. “I went to the wrong location,” he said after discovering via text that the Spirit Awards are not at the beach this year. He then packed up his beach ball and headed back to a studio where he encouraged folks to take part in Looped features like a virtual photo booth and the karaoke party while paying special attention to content during the commercial breaks. “We’ve reimagined the Spirit Awards as a completely virtual experience,” said Welsh.

What filled those commercial breaks was everything from special appearances by host Melissa Villaseñor and honorary chair Shaka King to clips from Spirit Awards past, a making-of video featuring the American Fine Arts Foundry team that creates the Spirit Award trophies, and center stage turns by some of the virtual guests. Like the rest of the pandemic, the reimagined virtual production allowed for guests to tune in from across the country and across the globe. There were large groups tuning in as a team, people holding babies and pets, swishing wine glasses and toasting with FIJI Water. In addition to RuPaul‘s Jan Sport who hosted the karaoke afterparty, Nina West and Heidi N Closet also crashed virtual tables during the breaks to entertain the guests.

Back to King. “I have a deep fondness in my heart for the Spirit Awards,” said the Judas and the Black Messiah filmmaker, appearing from his home and opening up on how the organization changed his life by naming him Someone to Watch at its 2014 brunch. “It saved my life. I had no money in my bank account.” The cash prize allowed him to continue pursuing his craft but it was also at that brunch that Ryan Coogler introduced him to LaKeith Stanfield, who would go on to star in Judas and the Black Messiah.

Villaseñor appeared numerous times throughout the show, which was executive produced and directed by Joel Gallen. Sometimes she cracked jokes and another time, she mimicked a Dolly Parton tune. “I’m having a blast,” she said. “Congrats to everyone nominated. You’re all winners to me. It’s true. You vaccinated and stuff?” Soon, Melissa, very soon.

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