The Increasing Oscar-ization of the Indie Film World

Prediction: The Independent Spirit Award's nominations this year will look a lot like the Academy's.

The Weinstein Company

Movie-awards season is an exercise in repetition. As fun as it is to follow the progress from critics awards to the Golden Globes to the Academy Awards, Oscar night has invariably become the culmination of weeks and weeks of lesser award shows that have seemingly taken great pains to make sure the same five or six names (or titles) show up in the same categories every single time. You can read this as intentional—the Critics Choice Awards are craven in their need to be seen as Oscar predictors—or simply as the law of averages playing out. Either way, that sameness gets pretty boring.

The Independent Spirit Awards, the nominations for which will properly kick off awards season on Tuesday, were once a refuge from that homogeneity. Generally the first nominations announced yet one of the last ceremonies held (traditionally the Saturday night before the Oscars, in a beachside ceremony that’s notably looser and less reverent), the Spirits spotlighted a field of performers who were different than the ones showing up at every other awards show.

Over the last decade or so, this has become less and less true. Last year, for the first time ever, all four Oscar winners in acting matched all four acting winners at the Spirits, and nine actors appeared on both ballots. In some ways, this could be chalked up to a quirk of timing. Not every awards year is going to be toplined by a devastating indie like 12 Years a Slave. But in the five years since the Best Picture Oscar category was expanded beyond five films, indies have taken up roughly half of those nominations. In that same span, Oscar nominees have taken up roughly a third of Spirit nominees (and almost all the Spirit winners). Once a refuge for acclaimed indies whose Oscar prospects were slim—due to challenging subject matter, miniscule box-office, or general low profile—the Spirits have nudged closer to redundancy.

This was at least partly inevitable. The Venn diagram between Oscar movies and independent film has seen a greater and greater overlap in the last decade-plus. As the studios have become more and more blockbuster-dependent, almost all filmmaking for adults has been pushed to the indie houses. And since the Spirits don’t distinguish between “true” independent film companies and studio-dependent ones like Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics, a lot of what one day might have been studio pictures are now presenting as indies. (Another part of this overlap, frankly, is Harvey Weinstein, a “true” independent studio head who operates like one of the big boys when it comes to awards campaigning.)

What’s been keeping the Spirits from complete Oscar overlap as of late have been the eligibility requirements. Two in particular: the budget for the film must come in under $20 million, and the film must be an American production. Hollywood numbers being the mushy, malleable figures that they are, you can see where that first rule might be less hard and fast than one might like. The second one defines an “American” film as one in which two-thirds of the writing/directing/producing duties fall to U.S. citizens or the film is set primarily in the U.S. and 70 percent financed by U.S. production companies.

The nationality requirement would seem to be a bit easier to maintain. And yet The Artist, written and directed by French people (though set in the U.S.), took top honors at the Spirits in 2011, likely because it was being distributed by the very American The Weinstein Company. This is why it’s hard to ever rule out a prospective Spirit nominee, particularly if they’re associated with Weinstein. Suddenly things like the French provenance of The Artist or the $21 million budget on Silver Linings Playbook don't seem to matter. Which is why it’s good to keep a wary eye on something like The Imitation Game, which seems awfully British, and is directed by a Norwegian, but whose writer and production company are American. Its awards-season analogue, The Theory of Everything, has a more purely British pedigree and should be excluded.

There are two ways these Spirit nominations can break. One will end up closely resembling the eventual Oscar short list. Another will throw some spotlight on the kinds of films that used to get their lone moments of awards attention on the Santa Monica beach.

Best Feature

Contenders that are also Oscar hopefuls: Boyhood, Birdman, Big Eyes, Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, Selma, A Most Violent Year, Whiplash, Wild

Contenders from outside the Oscar sphere: Dear White People, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Immigrant, Love Is Strange, Nightcrawler, Only Lovers Left Alive, Under the Skin

Some of these movies would be Spirit nominees whether or not they seemed poised to make a run at the Academy Awards. I’m talking primarily about Boyhood and Whiplash, two Sundance Film Festival premieres that have captivated critics in a big way. It may come down to splitting hairs, but those movies feel more indie than productions like Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, Selma, and Wild, all of which had high-profile benefactors from the outset. Of the non-Oscar films, the best chances seem to lie with The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom was a nominee two years ago), Under the Skin, and Nightcrawler. That even the underdogs at the Spirits have names like Jake Gyllenhaal and Scarlett Johansson attached to them is pretty telling in its own right.

Predicted nominees: Boyhood, Birdman, Selma, Under the Skin, Whiplash

Best Director

Contenders that are also Oscar hopefuls: Richard Linklater (Boyhood), Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman), Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher), Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game), Ava DuVernay (Selma), JC Chandor (A Most Violent Year), Damien Chazelle (Whiplash).

Contenders from outside the Oscar sphere: Gina Prince-Bythewood (Beyond the Lights), Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), James Gray (The Immigrant), Ira Sachs (Love Is Strange), Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive), Jonathan Glazer (Under the Skin)

This category is often a place to recognize one or two worthy films left off of the Best Feature list, and this year’s field includes a lot of former nominees, including Linklater, Chandor, Anderson, Gray, Sachs, and Jarmusch.

Predicted nominees: Damien Chazelle, JC Chandor, Ava DuVernay, Richard Linklater, Bennett Miller

Best Male Lead

Contenders that are also Oscar hopefuls: Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year), Michael Keaton (Birdman), David Oyelowo (Selma), Miles Teller (Whiplash).

Contenders from outside the Oscar sphere: Macon Blair (Blue Ruin), Ellar Coltrane (Boyhood), Jesse Eisenberg (The Double), Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler), John Lithgow (Love Is Strange), Bill Murray (St. Vincent), Joaquin Phoenix (The Immigrant or Inherent Vice).

While Boyhood is a major Oscar contender, you’d be hard pressed to find anybody who thinks its lead boy is as well. But the Spirits could decide to be extra generous with a movie that has represented independent film so well this year. It’s interesting that the outsiders here are names like Fiennes, Gyllenhaal, Murray, and Phoenix, while the “big” choices here include names like Isaac, Oyelowo, and Teller. It’s not about star power, though; it’s about studio might and awards-friendliness. That’s the world in which Benedict Cumberbatch is a front-runner.

Predicted nominees: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Keaton, David Oyelowo, Miles Teller

Best Female Lead

Contenders that are also Oscar hopefuls: Reese Witherspoon (Wild), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Amy Adams (Big Eyes)

Contenders from outside the Oscar sphere: Jessica Chastain (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby), Marion Cotillard (The Immigrant), Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin), Keira Knightley (Laggies or Begin Again), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beyond the Lights), Elisabeth Moss (The One I Love), Jenny Slate (Obvious Child), Tessa Thompson (Dear White People), Shailene Woodley (The Fault in Our Stars)

The fun categories are the ones where the first group is outnumbered by the second one, so look out for some surprises here, especially if Team Weinstein can’t get Amy Adams into the field. Witherspoon and Moore are the front-runners, though, and that promises to be the case at the Oscars as well, so don’t go throwing a parade for diversity just yet. The Spirits are likely the final stop for women like Jenny Slate or Elisabeth Moss to get recognized for the great years they’ve had. Moss in particular was celebrated in both The One I Love and Listen Up Philip, so she could get a few votes kicked her way for sheer volume of output.

Predicted nominees: Scarlett Johansson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Julianne Moore, Elisabeth Moss, Reese Witherspoon

Best Supporting Male

Contenders that are also Oscar hopefuls: Ethan Hawke (Boyhood), Edward Norton (Birdman), Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher), JK Simmons (Whiplash), Christoph Waltz (Big Eyes)

Contenders from outside the Oscar sphere: Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler), Alec Baldwin (Still Alice), Adam Driver (What If), Alfred Molina (Love Is Strange), Jeremy Renner (The Immigrant), Tyler James Williams (Dear White People)

Here’s where things start to get more open and less predictable, though it is worth noting that this year appears to be very top-heavy with Oscar contenders. Simmons/Norton/Ruffalo represent the trio of actors viewed as most likely to make the Oscar short list, and it’d be a huge surprise if any of them missed here. Hawke is also an easy drop-in for what promises to be a Boyhood-heavy field. If there’s an open fifth slot, then, it pits the star power of men like Baldwin and Renner, both very good in smaller films, versus the temptation for voters to anoint a new talent. Both Ahmed and Williams got raves for their breakthrough work, and I would guess one of them will end up trumping a scene-stealer like Driver.

Predicted nominees: Riz Ahmed, Ethan Hawke, Edward Norton, Mark Ruffalo, JK Simmons

Best Supporting Female

Contenders that are also Oscar hopefuls: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), Jessica Chastain (A Most Violent Year), Laura Dern (Wild), Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game), Carmen Ejogo (Selma), Emma Stone (Birdman), Naomi Watts (Birdman)

Contenders from outside the Oscar sphere: Gaby Hoffmann (Obvious Child), Julianne Moore (Maps to the Stars), Elisabeth Moss (Listen Up Phillip), Rene Russo (Nightcrawler), Kristen Stewart (Still Alice), Marisa Tomei (Love Is Strange)

It’s probably a long shot, but how happy would the 1990s be to see a lineup that included Arquette, Hoffman, Russo, Tomei, and Dern? Beyond Arquette and Knightley (and probably Stone), this feels like a wobbly Oscar field, one that could be easily disrupted by an insurgency from almost any of the actresses in that second group.

Predicted nominees: Patricia Arquette, Jessica Chastain, Laura Dern, Keira Knightley, Kristen Stewart

Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay

As their names suggest, both these categories are far more limited in scope, and thus by their very nature force most of the Oscar hopefuls out of the running. Which is why these categories—plus the Cassavetes Award for best film budgeted under $500,000—stand as the vanguards of “true” independent films at the Spirits. Though, as you’ll see, they’re not completely immune to Hollywood influence.

As indies are very often writer/director films, a lot of the contenders will be common to both categories, including Justin Simien’s Dear White People, Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto, and Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child. Jon Stewart, by no means a struggling independent artist, will be eligible in both categories for his Rosewater, while the star-studded This Is Where I Leave You finds itself eligible as a first screenplay for novelist Jonathan Tropper. Similarly, Nightcrawler is a debut directorial effort from career screenwriter Dan Gilroy.

Predicted Best First Feature Nominees: Dear White People, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Nightcrawler, Obvious Child, Rosewater

Predicted Best First Screenplay Nominees: Dear White People, Obvious Child, The One I Love, Palo Alto, This Is Where I Leave You

[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly recognized Imitation Game director Morten Tyldum as a Swede.]