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Indie Spirit Awards Offer a Dress Rehearsal for This Year’s Indie-Heavy Oscars

With most Spirit Awards categories containing one or two Oscar nominees, it’ll be even harder than usual for the show to stake out its own identity


The Film Independent Spirit Awards will definitely look different this year — because instead of taking place in a tent on the beach in Santa Monica on the Saturday afternoon before the Oscars, it’ll be a virtual ceremony on Thursday night, hosted by “Saturday Night Live” star Melissa Villaseñor for the first time.

But will the awards feel different, both from the usual Spirit Awards and from the even-more-indie-than-usual Oscars that will follow on Sunday? If Spirit voters stick to their usual habits, the 36th Spirit Awards could end up looking more like a dress rehearsal for the 93rd Academy Award than an indie alternative to the Oscars.

Of the 14 film categories that’ll be handed out during the IFC broadcast, seven could easily go to films that will go on to win the Oscar in that category on Sunday, including “Nomadland,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Promising Young Woman.” Another five could go to films that are nominated for Oscars. And only two, Best First Screenplay and the John Cassavetes Award for ultra-low-budget films, will definitely go to films that weren’t nominated by the Academy.

(This doesn’t include the Robert Altman Award for a film’s director, cast and casting director, whose winner was already announced as “One Night in Miami,” which received Oscar noms for screenplay, song and supporting actor.)

In this strangest of all years, could the voters pull a shocker and give the top award to “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” or “First Cow” instead of “Nomadland,” or bypass Chadwick Boseman in the Best Male Lead category in favor of, say, Rob Morgan for “Bull?” Sure they could, but there’s precious little precedent for that kind of independence in the last decade or so of Spirit Awards.

It wasn’t always like that. When the show started in 1986, it was a ragged event that honored films that were too rough and too indie for the Oscars: “River’s Edge” instead of “The Last Emperor,” “Sex, Lies and Videotape” instead of “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Pulp Fiction” instead of “Forrest Gump,” “Gods and Monsters” instead of “Titanic.”

But over the years, the Oscars got more indie and the Spirit Awards voters began gravitating toward the films that seemed likeliest to win Oscars. (I’m talking about the thousands of filmmakers and film fans who vote for the winners, as opposed to the small juries that select the nominees.) The trend reached its zenith from 2013 to 2016, when four consecutive Spirit Award winners in the Best Feature category – “12 Years a Slave,” “Birdman,” “Spotlight” and “Moonlight” – went on to win the Best Picture Oscar the following day.

The two awards haven’t matched since then, because Oscar winners “The Shape of Water,” “Green Book” and “Parasite” weren’t nominated in the top Spirit Awards category (or, in the case of “Parasite,” wasn’t eligible). But year after year, in category after category, Spirit voters have been giving their awards either to Oscar winners or to the closest thing they could find.

That’s one reason why the final award of last year’s show was so shocking: Instead of giving the Best Feature prize to “Marriage Story,” the only Oscar nominee in the category, the Spirit Awards voters gave it to “The Farewell,” and everybody in and around the big tent on the beach gasped.

Maybe they’ve got another few shocks in store this year, although any and all gasping will have to take place virtually. But with most Spirit Awards categories containing one or two Oscar nominees, it’ll be even harder than usual for the show to stake out its own identity through its choice of winners. Granted, that’s a predictable dilemma for a year in which the COVID pandemic closed theaters and pushed many larger films that would have contended for Oscars into 2021 or 2022.

So the Spirit Awards will give us a preview of the Oscar Best Actress battle to come between Frances McDormand, Carey Mulligan and Viola Davis; and it’ll offer another directing prize for Chloe Zhao to take home; and it’ll be a chance for “Sound of Metal” co-star Paul Raci to win a supporting-actor award in a category that for once doesn’t include the apparently unbeatable Daniel Kaluuya from “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

And then it’ll give out awards in a handful of television categories for the first time ever, with awards juggernauts like “The Mandalorian,” “The Crown” and “The Queen’s Gambit” not in the running and shows like “I May Destroy You,” “Never Have I Ever” and “Little America” no doubt enjoying the clearer view.

In this oddest of years, that may be enough independence for now.