Will Independent Spirit Award Winners Predict the Oscars Tonight?

By @ZShevich
Will Independent Spirit Award Winners Predict the Oscars Tonight?

The highly discussed possibility of a Best Picture / Best Director split was given fuel by the results of this year’s Independent Spirit Awards. The technically proficient Birdman won the night’s top honor, while Boyhood director Richard Linklater was awarded the directing prize. In fact, so many Oscars frontrunners won awards at this year’s Spirit Awards that the perceived chasm between the shows resembled a mere crack in the sidewalk.

Five out of six frontrunners (depending on your opinions on a Birdman/Boyhood Best Picture & Best Director split) for the big six awards on Oscars Sunday took home honors at the Indie Spirit Awards this year. The one Oscar underdog to win an Indie Spirit Award was Michael Keaton who A) has close to 50/50 odds in the Best Actor race and B) didn’t face competition from the likely Best Actor winner Eddie Redmayne. If the expected results hold for tonight’s Oscars ceremony, it will be the second time in two years that five out of six Spirit Awards winners repeated that achievement at the Oscars (last year, only Steve McQueen’s Best Director win deviated from the Oscars’ picks, and like Keaton, McQueen’s competition was ineligible at the Spirit Awards).

Look back only two years to the 2012 Awards and the similarities weren’t quite as strong: only Best Female Lead winner Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) would ultimately win an Oscar as well. The mutual embrace of The Artist by the Spirit Awards and Oscars saw many similar winners in 2011; however, 2009’s awarding of Mo’Nique (Precious) and Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart) followed by 2010’s honoring of Natalie Portman for Best Actress (Black Swan) marked the only major winners to transcend award shows.

Natalie Portman at Spirit Awards

Natalie Portman won Best Actress in 2010

Many have taken the increasing similarity between the Oscars and the Independent Spirit Awards as a sign that the indie awards aren’t as indie as they once were. Truthfully, you have to look to the Spirit Awards’ designated low-budget or First Screenplay categories to find the gems like Dear White People and Land Ho!; however, the Spirit Awards’ $20 million budget ceiling still prevents most of the major studio efforts from penetrating the indie tent in Santa Monica, CA. Oscar-nominated films like American Sniper and The Imitation Game were also absent from the nominees due to the budget cap. So what else can be blamed for the increasing likeness between these awards? The Academy Awards’ switch to an expanded Best Picture field.

In 2008, the last time the Academy nominated only five movies for Best Picture is the last year in which there was no overlap with the Indie Spirit Awards’ Best Feature category. In fact in 2008, Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler) took home the Independent Spirit Awards’ Best Male Lead prize over eventual Oscar winner Sean Penn (Milk) indicating a lack of consensus between the separate award shows.

2009 only featured Precious as a Best Film nominee at both shows but the following year featured 4 Indie Spirit Best Feature nominees in the Best Picture race. Every year since 2010, before 2014, had only two features overlap, but compared to earlier seasons that often featured one or no overlap in the top category this shift is notable. The only Spirit Best Feature nominees with Best Picture nominations in 2004, 2006 & 2007 were the winners of Best Feature.

Neil Patrick Harris at Spirit Awards

Neil Patrick Harris sings onstage in 2007 at Spirit Awards. Tonight he’s hosting the Oscars.

With the Academy Awards increasing the number of nominated films in a year, mid-major films once destined to be overlooked now share the spotlight with studio-produced features. The Oscars have met the need for an awards show to recognize films that emerge from the festival world like Boyhood & Whiplash, which totaled 11 Oscar nominations between them. The Independent Spirit Awards aren’t treading on the Oscars’ territory so much as the Academy has taken a step toward the indie world.

Perhaps this indicates that the Independent Spirit Awards needs to consider dropping its ceiling from $20 million movies to something like $10 million. In a changing filmmaking landscape that’s become increasingly digitized, $20 million can look a lot like $100 million once did. A lower ceiling might eliminate films like Birdman & Selma from the competition but big winners such as Still Alice ($5 million budget) and Nightcrawler ($8.5 million budget) would remain a part of the festivities. Drop the ceiling to $5 million and both Boyhood ($4 million) & Whiplash ($3.3 million) still qualify.

More importantly, lowering the ceiling helps drag films like Appropriate Behavior and Blue Ruin out of the “Best First” categories and into the same discussion as Oscar nominees. Because if predicting the winners of the Independent Spirit Awards means simply waiting for the Oscar frontrunners to materialize, then what’s the purpose of the Spirit Awards at all?

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