Thursday 9 November 2023

Indie Cinema And The Hugo Of Doom

At the 2023 WSFS Business Meeting, a constitutional amendment was passed that would (if ratified at the 2024 Business Meeting) add two new categories to the already long list of Hugo Awards: Best Independent Short Film and Best Independent Feature Film.
Independent Cinema is awesome, but ill-defined.
(Photo by Daniel Penfield via Wikipedia

The beauty and diversity of global cinema and of independent film is something that should be more celebrated at the Hugo Awards. But despite our love of independent SFF cinema, we are firmly opposed to the creation of a secondary award for a specific type of movie.

Here’s the motion that succeeded by a vote of seven to five:

3.3.X: Best Independent Short Film Award. Awarded to science fiction or fantasy productions presented in the short film format (under 45 minutes) for the first time in the previous calendar year. The films should not be funded by a major studio or distribution label/platform/streamer. Films can be funded by national film/arts grants like the BFI or TeleCanada. The award should not include broadcast or streaming television series episodes.

3.3.X+1: Best Independent Feature Film Award. Awarded to science fiction or fantasy productions presented in the long film format (over 61 minutes) for the first time in the previous calendar year. The films should not be funded by a major studio or distribution label/platform/streamer. Films can be funded by national film/arts grants like the BFI or TeleCanada.

“Although we already have a [Hugo] award for films, those films are usually mainstream. They’re already commercially very successful,” Xia Tong, one of the two fans who proposed the new categories, said. “There are a lot of art movies and Indian films that are quite popular among our fandom. They need more encouragement.”

These are sentiments with which we largely agree. What we don’t agree with is the idea that Indie films need a separate award to be recognized for their value by Worldcon members … and the idea that allowing the existing categories to remain the domain of mainstream films will help.
In the independent movie Prospect, Pedro Pascal
plays a grizzled loner hanging out with a kid,
a role completely unlike any other he's taken.
(Image via Wikipedia)  

In recent years, sub-par corporate works such as The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Avengers Endgame have received Hugo nods ahead of significantly better independent and foreign movies such as Robot & Frank and Prospect. That does point to problems with the category. But the solution is advocacy. People who care about independent cinema should be working to encourage Hugo voters to check out a wider variety of films, and then giving them the time to watch those movies by WSFS extension of eligibility under rule 3.4.3.

Over the past four years, we have filed extension of eligibility motions (allowing a longer time for Hugo voters to consider nominating) on lower-budget SFF movies like After Yang, Strawberry Mansion, Neptune Frost, Mad God, Nine Days, Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes, Psycho Goreman, The Color Out Of Space, and Prospect. We are passionate about celebrating and promoting independent SFF movies. However, we do not think that the best way to recognize that is with the creation of new Hugo Award categories, seemingly based on how much money a film makes.

There are a number of problems with the idea of a Hugo Award for independent cinema. The first and most significant to us is that creating these categories positions independent cinema as something other than “real” movies. Hiving off independent cinema into its own special category creates a ghettoized award that is inherently lesser than mainstream studio movies. As an analogy, nobody markets Billie Eilish’s When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? as the winner of the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album … because it also won the Grammy for Best Album of the Year. The category with a more restrictive set of eligibility criteria is going to be seen as less prestigious.

The definition of what counts as "independent" is
quite nebulous — and could even include 
music videos such as Skibidi.
(Image via YouTube)
On a practical level, it is difficult to parse out which works might be eligible for these awards. As an example, this year’s Hugo-winning movie Everything Everywhere All At Once has been categorized as an independent film (and was honoured by the Independent Spirit Awards). Although Everything Everywhere All At Once was not funded by one of the Big Five Studios (Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures, Walt Disney Studios, and Sony Pictures), the production was funded by IAC, a firm with $10 billion in holdings. Likewise, the 2009 Hugo-winning movie Moon can be categorized as an independent film (winning the BIFA award for Best British Independent Film), but the production was funded by Stage 6 Films, which is wholly owned by Sony Pictures. In addition, a reasonable argument could have been made that Iron Man might have been classed as “independent,” since Marvel Studios self-financed the movie and was at that time not part of Disney. Parsing out the differences between “Independent” and “Studio” films would be a significant challenge for Hugo administrators.

This also raises the question of whether a single work should be eligible for two separate Hugo Awards. In the past, the awards have operated on a premise that recognizing a single work with two separate trophies would be akin to gilding a lily. It seems likely that if these awards had existed in 2023, Everything Everywhere All At Once would have been honoured with both the Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form Hugo, as well as the Best Independent Feature Film Award. (Unlike with the Best Series Hugo which was introduced in 2017 and can bend this principle, the creation of the Independent Cinema Hugos would break the principle fully.)

As of 2024, there will be no fewer than 18 permanent categories at the Hugo Awards. The ever-expanding slate of categories is creating an increasing burden on the event, its volunteers, and the voting membership. This is not the main reason to oppose these new categories, but it should be a significant consideration.

The wording for these awards as it stands would exclude any movies that are between 46 and 60 minutes in length; the short movie award caps out at 45 minutes, and the long form is not available for anything shorter than 61 minutes. This is a nitpick rather than a substantive criticism, but it does seem ill-considered.

2023 Hugo Winner Everything
Everywhere All At Once
won the Independent Spirit
Award for Independent Cinema.
(Image Via Wikipedia)
Several attendees of the business meeting spoke in favour of these new categories, including Louis Savy who has done excellent work to promote independent SFF movies as the organizer of the Sci-Fi London Film Festival. On Facebook, organizers of other science fiction film festivals have indicated an intention to attend the next Worldcon to vote for this motion. The question, however, is if new Hugo Awards should be created to meet the needs of a small group of professionals, or in the interests of the Worldcon membership.

This blog has a history of championing independent and smaller-budget SFF films. We would suggest that many of the small-budget SFF movies are more ambitious, daring, provocative, and thoughtful than the endless cavalcade of costumed CGI-generated crimefighter movies that are churned out by large studios. As we have previously argued, the role of the Hugos as they were initially envisioned in 1953 was “to make the great works of science fiction better known to the world,” and by this measure the Best Dramatic Presentation category does not serve its purpose by routinely honouring the big-budget blockbusters of which the world is already well aware. The solution is not to create new categories, but to make more use of WSFS rule 3.4.3, which can help platform independent gems. And, to perhaps build awareness and interest in films from regions not regularly represented on the nominating ballot.

Conversely, it’s worth noting that Worldcon has always been more of a literary convention than a media convention. Consequently, the Hugos are voted on by people with a deeper knowledge of literature than of the independent film festival circuit. In that light, it might also be time for us to consider whether or not the Best Dramatic Presentation categories should continue at all, though that’s a conversation for another time.

Awards that recognize works based on a democratic vote depend on an informed electorate. But independent cinema is accessible to a smaller audience than mainstream blockbusters, and it is consequently difficult for nominators to be aware of the field. An award for independent science fiction cinema is warranted, but it is likely that a juried award would be better suited to do justice to this art form.

The WSFS Business Meeting in Glasgow should reject these proposed categories. Not every type of work needs to have a category at the Hugo Awards.


  1. I would argue that the use of "should" in the categories punts the determination of what does or does not count as a major studio squarely in the hands of the nominators. The word "should" constitutes a suggestion, not a requirement, and I'd argue that it has no place in a Hugo category description.

    (This is kind of nitpicky but it's a distinction that has been drilled into my head in the context of California housing law where "should" has been held not to constitute an objective, binding standard )

  2. I'm with you on that. I'd be up for ditching Graphic Novel and Video Game as well.

  3. I'm all the way on the other side of this one, but I think it's partly because I don't think we have nearly enough categories. We cover a lot of ground, and that's a positive thing. We probably need about 25 to do the field justice, and I'd say 30 isn't out of the question.

    It might also be that I deal with short films every day, know exactly how much amazing material is out there that gets over-shadowed, and that the WorldCon community would embrace if the proper light were shone.

    It could also be that I just love longer awards shows.