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What Are the Film Independent Spirit Awards?

by Scott Kacsmar
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Independent Spirit Awards

Just when you thought they could not fit another award show into the schedule, the Film Independent Spirit Awards are taking place on Sunday, February 25, 2024.

But when you look at the differences between the major award shows, there actually is a reason to have them all, as they do reward different things and promote diversity with honoring film and television from the past year:

Where do the Spirit Awards fit in? They honor the best in independent filmmaking for both movies and TV series.

So, if you’re the kind of person who prefers indie classics like Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and the Coen Brothers’ Fargo over box-office smashes and critical successes like Forrest Gump and The English Patient, then the Spirit Awards might be up your alley. Pulp Fiction (1994) and Fargo (1996) actually beat out those Oscar winners when it came to the Best Film award at the Spirit Awards.

We look back at the history of the Spirit Awards and a brief preview of what to expect from the 39th ceremony coming up.

The History of the Film Independent Spirit Awards

This award show was founded in 1984 as the Friends of Independents Awards, or the FINDIE for short. It was renamed the Independent Spirit Awards in 1986, the same year the 1st ceremony was held at 385 North, a Los Angeles restaurant to highlight the shoestring budget independent films are made with. It has since been held many times in a tent at a parking lot at Santa Monica Pier in California.

Actor Peter Coyote hosted the initial ceremony and Martin Scorsese’s 1985 film After Hours won the 1st ever Best Film award at the Spirit Awards.

The producer of the ceremony is Film Independent, a non-profit arts organization that used to produce the LA Film Festival. The members of Film Independent are the voting block for the Spirit Awards.

Historically, the Spirit Awards have most commonly been held the day before the Oscars, but it has recently happened the Saturday 8 days before the Oscars, possibly influencing the final Oscar vote.

The Spirit Award Design

Spirit Awards Trophy

The Spirit Award itself is certainly a unique one. Originally, winners were given acrylic glass pyramids that contained suspended shoestrings as a nod to the “shoestring budget” associated with independent filmmaking.

Since 2006, all winners have received a metal trophy that depicts a bird with spread wings, sitting on a pole with the shoestrings from the original design wrapped around the pole.

Award Categories at the Spirit Awards

There is a fair share of awards handed out at the Spirit Awards for great films and TV series, as well as honoring acting, direction, writing, cinematography and editing.

Here is a list of many traditional awards that are currently presented at the Spirit Awards:

  • Best Feature Film
  • Best Director
  • Best First Feature
  • Best Lead Performance (since 2022)
  • Best Supporting Performance (since 2022)
  • Best Breakthrough Performance
  • Best Screenplay
  • Best First Screenplay
  • Best International Feature Film
  • Best Documentary Feature Film
  • Best Cinematography
  • Best Editing
  • Best New Scripted Series (since 2020)
  • Best Lead Performance in a New Scripted Series
  • Best Supporting Performance in a New Scripted Series
  • Best New Non-Scripted or Documentary Series
  • Best Ensemble Cast in a New Scripted Series

In 2020, a new category was created to honor the best new scripted series in independent filmmaking. It is a sign of how things have changed with limited series on streaming services becoming a dominant format for filmmaking. This category has already honored some great series such as I May Destroy You, Reservation Dogs, and The Bear.

In 2022, the Spirit Awards decided to ditch the traditional Best Actor and Best Actress awards for lead roles and supporting roles in favor of a gender-neutral award for best lead and supporting performances in both films and new scripted series. That means men and women will compete against each other in a field twice as large as normal. Actress Michelle Yeoh won the initial Best Lead Performance award out of a field of 10 nominees in 2022 for her role in Everything Everywhere All at Once, which set a Spirits Award record with 7 wins total.

Also in 2022, the Spirit Awards brought back the Best Breakthrough Performance award, which ran from 1995-2005 before it was discontinued.

To battle inflation, there have also been numerous budget increases for a film’s eligibility for a Spirit Award. For example, in 2006 a film could not have a budget of more than $20 million and still be eligible for a Spirit Award. That number is now $30 million.

There is also a Spirit Award called the John Cassavetes Award, which goes to the creators of a film with a budget under $1 million (used to be $500,000 max). The inaugural winner of this award, named after the great indie filmmaker Cassavetes, was The Blair Witch Project in 1999.

The Robert Altman Award has been handed out since 2007 to the ensemble cast, director and casting director for a film. It was started to honor the late director after Altman’s passing and it has annually been awarded to a winner without any other nominees. Some notable winners of the Robert Altman Award include I’m Not There (2007), Synecdoche, New York (2008), Spotlight (2015), Moonlight (2016) and an underrated gem called Mass (2021). The winner this year has already been announced as Showing Up, directed by Kelly Reichardt.

What to Expect from the 39th Independent Spirit Awards in 2024

The 39th Independent Spirit Awards will take place on Sunday, February 25, 2024 at the Santa Monica Pier in California. SNL actress and comedian Aldy Bryant will host the event, which will stream live on the YouTube channels for IMDb and Film Independent.

This should be an interesting year as many of the award-winning films at other shows had too big of a budget to qualify for the Spirit Awards. That means you won’t see anything like Oppenheimer, Killers of the Flower Moon, or Barbie here.

Who are some of the beneficiaries of those films not eligible for competition here?

  • America-Korean drama Past Lives could have a big night as it is nominated for Best Feature, Best Director (Celine Song), Best Screenplay, and 2 choices for Best Lead Performance (Greta Lee and Teo Yoo).
  • Along with Past Lives, the only other films with 5 nominations this year are May December and American Fiction (Jeffery Wright has a fair shot to win Best Lead Performance).
  • Da’Vine Joy Randolph has already won all the awards for her supporting role in The Holdovers, and she should win here too. The bigger question is if Dominic Sessa will win Best Breakthrough Performance for the same film too.
  • On the television front, Netflix’s Beef has been winning all the awards at the Emmys and Golden Globes, and it should be a lock for Best New Scripted Series here. Beef stars Steven Yeun and Ali Wong should be competing with each other for Best Lead Performance in a New Scripted Series along with Bella Ramsey from The Last of Us and Bel Powley for A Small Light.

We’ll see what happens but my money would be on Past Lives and Beef to clean up nicely as the year in independent film is honored at the Spirit Awards.

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Scott Kacsmar
NFL football picks are Scott Kacsmar's expertise, serving as his main focus. He has contributed to various sports websites and blogs, such as NBC Sports, ESPN Insider, FiveThirtyEight, and, JoeWager. Originating from Pittsburgh, Scott maintains a love-hate connection with the Pirates.

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