Spirit Awards: Nominations Don't Predict Oscars So Everyone Should Relax

THR's awards analyst breaks down the meaning of Tuesday morning's nominations announcement.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon in 'Other People'

As nominations were announced on Tuesday morning for the 32nd annual Film Independent Spirit Awards, Barry Jenkins' widely-celebrated Moonlight and Andrea Arnold's less-heralded American Honey, with six nominations each, grabbed the headlines. Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea also woke to a more-than-respectable showing, with five nominations. While those three films were nominated for the Spirit Awards' best feature prize, along with Pablo Larrain's Jackie and Michael Franco's Chronic, several other contenders failed to crack the top category — among them 20th Century Women, Hell or High Water and Loving.

But to all the Oscar publicists who emailed me this morning — whether they were celebrating or despairing  — I have a message: Take a chill pill. If history has shown us anything, it’s that the Spirit Awards have very little bearing on the Oscars.

I say this not to take anything away from Film Independent or its hallmark event, both of which are wonderful, but rather to remind people that Spirit Award nominations never have served as much of a barometer for Oscar nominations.

While it’s true that Spirit Awards noms offer a more accurate reflection of the feelings of the overall independent filmmaking community than the New York-based Gotham Awards, the taste of the independent filmmaking community itself is not particularly shared by the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Spirit Award noms are chosen in November by a nominating committee comprised of several dozen people connected with the world of independent film (writers, directors, producers, cinematographers, editors, actors, critics, casting directors, film festival programmers and other working film professionals). Oscar noms, meanwhile, are chosen in January by a group of some 7,000 people.

True, the makeup of the Academy is slowly but surely changing — Academy CEO Dawn Hudson joined the organization from Film Independent, where she previously served as president, and during her tenure the Academy has stepped up its efforts to bring in a more diverse membership, including many from the indie film community. But I'd argue the vast majority of Academy members still possess loyalties or inclinations toward studio fare, having come up within the studio system.

So while it certainly isn’t a bad omen for, say, Jackie’s Oscar prospects that it got a best feature Spirit Award nom, it’s not necessarily a good omen either — any more than it is for American Honey and Chronic. 20th Century Women, Hell or High Water and Loving still stand an infinitely better shot at securing a best picture Oscar nom than those two, not necessarily because of quality (that’s, of course, subjective), but because they are backed by full-fledged Oscar campaigns — meaning money and personnel — working around-the-clock to convince Academy members that they need to see them.

Some indie titles dodged this sort of mishigas on Tuesday because they weren't quite indie enough, according to Film Independent's definition. La La Land, for instance, had a budget of around $30 million; the Spirit Awards look for things at or under $20 million. That also explains the absence of Nocturnal Animals. On the other hand, Lion and A Monster Calls, while meeting budget requirements, weren't principally made in America, so they were eligible only in the international film category, although neither got a nom there.

Performers who did not make the list of Spirit nominees — like Loving's lead actor Joel Edgerton and Manchester by the Sea's supporting actress Michelle Williams — need not panic, either. Rightly or not, Spirit nominees David Harewood (Free in Deed) and Lily Gladstone (Certain Women), respectively, won't be taking their places at the Oscars.

I also wouldn’t focus on the absence of Moonlight’s supporting performers Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris, since their movie's entire cast was feted with the special Robert Altman Award. That award is chosen by the same jury that selects the acting category nominees and in past years has only once elected to nominate an individual from an Altman Award-winning ensemble.

But some of the "snubs" of true low-budget indie hopefuls are more significant — such as Paterson's Adam Driver. And the omission of some high-profile, massively acclaimed performances — like that of Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water — likely indicate voter confusion about categories.  

I suspect Bridges' absence has less to do with people not loving his work than not knowing which category it belongs in. While he's been pushed as a supporting performer for the Oscar, he was submitted for the Gotham Awards as a lead, simply because the Gothams don’t have supporting categories, and he received a nom there because, I’m told, the jury felt that’s the category in which he actually belongs. Spirit Award voters do have the option of both lead and supporting categories, and may have been split about where to put him, which suggests his backers need to either make it clearer that he’s a supporting actor contender or re-evaluate that categorization — and fast.

The only real way in which the Spirit Awards nominations influence anything that comes after them is in highlighting films and people who might not yet be on the radar of Academy members and, in so doing, motivate some of them to watch something they weren’t previously inclined to check out. This year, the Spirit Award noms, coming on top of the Gotham Award noms, are most likely to have that effect on Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight, the indie darlings that some might have been putting off seeing because they are, undeniably, bleak.

And perhaps a few more people also will pop in a screener of American Honey (including supporting actor Shia LaBeouf and supporting actress Riley Keough) and Other People, which got four (including lead actor Jesse Plemons and supporting actress Molly Shannon). And that’s a good thing.

The Spirit Awards winners will be revealed at a ceremony in Santa Monica on Feb. 25 — as always, the day before, you guessed it, the Oscars.

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