Will Indie Spirit Awards continue to favor Oscar fare?

The Independent Spirit Awards talk a good game about being independently minded, awarding small films during a casual, irreverent ceremony on the beach. Typically scheduled the day before the Oscars and broadcast on IFC, they have set themselves up as the cool, hipster-kids’ alternative to the highfalutin Academy Awards.

But turns out when it comes to picking their winners, Indie Spirit voters almost always go for the Oscar bait.

These kudos are bestowed by Film Independent, a non-profit whose mission is to support independent film. However, membership is not restricted to film professionals. Anyone – fans and filmmakers alike – can join by paying their $95 annual dues.

To compete, a film must be an American production longer than 70 minutes and produced for less than $20 million. Even with those restrictions, the nominating committees have shown a flair at predicting Oscar fare.

Last year, two Spirit nominees for Best Feature were also Oscar contenders for Best Picture: “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Silver Linings Playbook.” Spirit voters went with the bigger one, “Silver Linings,” even though its reported production budget was $21 million. 

Wouldn’t it have been more in the spirit of the Spirit Awards to choose “Beasts” – made on a shoe-string budget by a young director with a cast of first-time actors – over a mid-budget, studio-produced, rom-com like “Silver Linings”?

In 2011, the Spirit Awards crowned “The Artist,” which went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture.

In 2010, “Black Swan” was the Spirit champ defeating, among others, “Winter’s Bone.” Both were nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. However, like “Silver Linings,” “Swan” had a better known director (Darren Aronofsky) and stars – this was back when Natalie Portman trumped Jennifer Lawrence for name-recognition.

In 2009, the Spirit Award went to the only Oscar-nominee for Best Picture, “Precious,” in the lineup. 

2008 was a rare year in which no Oscar Best Picture contenders were to be found among the nominees for the top Spirit Award. Voters chose “The Wrestler,” which earned two Oscar bids for acting, over fellow Oscar contenders “Frozen River” and “Rachel Getting Married,” and non-Oscar contenders “Ballast” and “Wendy and Lucy.”

And so on, and so on, going back decades, from “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006), to “Fargo” (1996), to “Platoon” (1986). If there’s an Oscar-nominee in the bunch, it tends to win.

This year, two Spirit nominees for Best Feature are up for the top Oscar: “12 Years a Slave” and “Nebraska.” One of them will almost certainly win if history is any indication. Since “12 Years” is the bigger Oscar contender – one of the frontrunners for Best Picture, with nine nominations in all – it may be the inevitable choice for the Spirit Awards’ top prize. That’s what our predictors think, giving “12 Years” overwhelming 1/10 odds to win.

That’s not to say the Spirit Awards always pick the wrong films, per se, but what distinguishes them is their ability to spotlight truly under-the-radar achievements, and I enjoy them most when they show me something new; last year, for instance, I only watched the excellent “Keep the Lights On” after these kudos brought it to my attention.

That’s where the Spirit Awards can have their biggest impact. But if they become just the last stop on the road to the Oscars, they risk losing their meaning.

Make your Spirit Award predictions below, beginning with Best Feature, using our easy drag-and-drop menu. Come back and change your predictions as often as you like till Spirits afternoon, March 1.

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