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Indie Spirit Awards: Oscar’s Little Brother, or a Scrappy Rival?

Can the Spirit Awards be an alternative to the Oscars if they keep picking the same winners?


It wasn’t that long ago that the Film Independent Spirit Awards gave rise to the expression, “Win on Saturday, lose on Sunday.”

That’s because the Spirit Awards take place the day before the Academy Awards, and because the roll call of Spirit winners is full of films that didn’t quite make the cut with the Academy, starting with “River’s Edge,” “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” “The Player” and “Pulp Fiction” and going on to include “Memento,” “Lost in Translation,” “Sideways,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Juno,” “The Wrestler,” “Precious,” “Black Swan” …

But as the Spirit Awards prepare for their 30th annual ceremony on Saturday afternoon, things look a little different — and not just because the Spirit Awards are getting a live broadcast, airing on IFC at 2 p.m. PT/5 p.m. ET after years of late-night, tape-delayed timeslots.

Two of the last three Spirit Award winners have subsequently won the Oscar for Best Picture, and the two films with the best chance to triumph this year – “Birdman” and “Boyhood” – are also the frontrunners at Sunday’s Academy Awards.

Also read: Oscars’ 24 Final ‘Will Win, Should Win’ Predictions: ‘Birdman,’ ‘Boyhood,’ ‘Budapest’ Top a Baffling Year

Sure, “Birdman” is a slight favorite at the Oscars and “Boyhood” may have a narrow edge at the Spirits. But things have changed with the Spirit Awards over the years, and the show that once seemed to go its own way is looking more like Oscar’s little brother than its scrappy rival.

“I do look at the other shows and see what the other organizations are nominating,” FIND President Josh Welsh told TheWrap’s Linda Ge this week. “To the extent that there is overlap, I think it’s a great thing. I completely embrace it.

“At Film Independent, at the Spirit Awards, our mission is to help build the audience for independent film. When other organizations are recognizing independent film, I think that’s beautiful.”

Also read: Film Independent President Josh Welsh: Awards Diversity Problems Start at a ‘Much Deeper Level’ in Industry

Certainly, the Oscars have swung decisively in the indie direction during the three decades that the Spirit Awards have been in existence. And this year, four of the five Spirit Award nominees for Best Feature are also in the running for the top Oscar: “Boyhood,” “Birdman,” “Selma” and “Whiplash.”

Only eight of the 20 Spirit acting nominees are Oscar nominees, but they include the four who are expected to win on Saturday and, in at least three cases, to repeat on Sunday: Julianne Moore, J.K. Simmons and Patricia Arquette and the lone Oscar question mark, Michael Keaton.

And yes, as Welsh went on to point out, the Spirit categories are filled with films far too small and odd to attract the Academy’s attention: “Love Is Strange,” “Jimi: All Is By My Side,” “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” and “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors,” among others.

But those aren’t the kind of films that win Spirit Awards. Nominations are made by small, select committees that can single out true indies, but the final vote is open to anyone who joins Film Independent and pays dues of about $100 – and many of the smaller films just don’t have the visibility (or the money to send screeners), and aren’t seen by enough voters to register.

See photos: 21 Exclusive Wrap Awards Contender Portraits (Photos)

FIND screens all the nominees for its members – but as Welsh also pointed out, membership is growing fast and is including “an increasing number of people who don’t live in Southern California,” and thus wouldn’t have access to those member screenings.

So increasingly, the equation has become “win on Saturday, win again on Sunday while wearing fancier clothes.” Last year, for instance, in the 11 Spirit Awards categories that have an Oscar equivalent, the same film or performer won seven times, including Best Film, Best Documentary and all four acting races.

That’s a far cry from the early days of the Spirit Awards, which were first given out in 1986. Between then and 1994, only one of the first 46 Spirit Awards nominees was even nominated for Best Picture. (That was Oliver Stone’s “Platoon,” which won both awards.)

And it wasn’t until 2005 that the Spirits had a year in which more than one Oscar contender was in competition, when they suddenly had three. In the decade since then, though, an Oscar Best Picture nominee has won the Spirit Award every year except one.

Also read: 11 Things We Know About the Oscars Show

It’ll no doubt happen again this year, plenty of dramas can play out on Saturday afternoon on the beach in Santa Monica, during a show that for the first time in years will be broadcast live rather than being tape delayed.

The same “Birdman” vs. “Boyhood” showdown expected to dominate the Oscars will be on display at the Spirit Awards. “Boyhood” director Richard Linklater is such an indie icon that his film is expected to be the big winner on Saturday, though people have been underestimating “Birdman” all awards season. In addition, “Selma” director Ava DuVernay is active in Film Independent, and embracing her film would be a way for Spirit voters to show they’re not afraid to go where the Oscars won’t.

A best-actor victory for David Oyelowo or Jake Gyllenhaal over Michael Keaton could send a similar message, and one for Marion Cotillard or indie icon Tilda Swinton over Julianne Moore in the best-actress race could do the same. But it’s not as if Moore and Keaton (or Simmons and Arquette) don’t have some indie cred of their own – and in recent years, every time Spirit voters have had the chance to go for the eventual Oscar winner, they’ve done it.

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Still, there’s always the Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay awards, where the contenders include “Nightcrawler” and “Dear White People” and “Obvious Child” and others; and the John Cassavetes Award, which will go to a tiny movie like “Blue Ruin” or “Man From Reno”; and the Robert Altman Award, which will go to the director, casting director and ensemble cast of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Thomas Pynchon adaptation, “Inherent Vice.”

Given the grumbling about that loose, deliciously druggy film we’ve been hearing from Academy voters recently, handing it an award counts as a true declaration of independence.