It’s natural to not think of the Independent Spirit Awards as a particularly valuable Oscar-predicting stats tool, since too many of the Oscar front-runners are ineligible for ISA wins and nominations, seemingly rendering most of their outcomes irrelevant, in this most cynical of senses.
Nevertheless, if one looks at things from the right angle, one may find that these can in fact be surprisingly indicative of who will (or, perhaps more to the point, who will not) triumph, usually just hours later, on the Oscar stage. (Perhaps in particular in a year such as this one, with so many Oscar contenders among their nominees and so many unclear races.)
I was already aware of this fact, to some extent; then, recently, I had an idea which prompted me to look more closely at each of the categories the two awards shows have in common and attempt to clarify once and for all just how useful (or not) any stats derived from the Indie Spirits could be to one’s Oscar predictions. Herein is a summary of my findings… (Beginning with the categories with the strongest stats and that are most relevant to this year’s Oscar races.)
The first thing to note is that all eleven Oscar winners that were also nominated for an Indie Spirit in this category actually won (from Geraldine Page in 1986 to Renée Zellweger last year). It’s true that almost none of them were facing strong Oscar-nominated opposition. (Although several were up against fellow Oscar nominees.)
But the point (and this will be a recurring theme) is that the stronger Oscar contender has pretty much always won here. For starters, no Oscar-nominated actress has ever lost in this category at the Indie Spirits to an actress not nominated at the Oscars. (Out of 26 years in which there has been at least one such nominee.)
Additionally, the stronger Oscar contender (based on important precursor wins) has always prevailed, with the exception of, perhaps, Melissa Leo in Frozen River beating Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married (who won the Critics Choice and NBR, whereas Leo had no precursor wins of note that year), making it 25/26, for a rather strong stat. This year, Oscar nominees also present here are:
Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom)
Frances McDormand (Nomadland)
Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman)
The stat strongly suggests that one of them will win and, given that the Oscar winner has never lost here and the strongest contender has almost always come out on top, it follows that, most probably – unless one thinks the race being so disjointed this year somehow affects the logic of the stat -, none of them will want to lose this if they’re to win the Oscar… Winning this doesn’t guarantee anything at all (plenty of ISA winners that were nominated at the Oscars failed to repeat), but losing seems to be quite telling, in a negative sense, and at least two of the big Best Actress contenders are bound to lose here, unless there’s a tie.
There is, of course, Andra Day, who can spoil the party at the Oscars and, in hindsight, render the question of who wins here mostly irrelevant (although, in terms of predictions, it would still be a very good clue that the two who lose this award won’t win the other one, either), but she has much bigger stats issues already. Likewise, Vanessa Kirby.
Here, too, the Oscar winner has never failed to also win the Independent Spirit Award – even Birdman managed to beat Boyhood… (The others are Platoon, The Artist, 12 Years a Slave, Spotlight and Moonlight.) And, once again, the stronger Oscar contender has won almost every time.
(The only exception, a very pleasant surprise for myself, as somebody who had The Farewell as their overall number one of the year, came when that movie beat Marriage Story – which was also one of my top three -, the only Oscar-nominated movie in the lineup, last year; not the first time the Indie Spirits have gone for one of my favorites.)
That’s 18/19 times when there has been at least one Oscar Best Picture nominee also up for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Feature. These are the cases in which other Best Picture nominees were defeated in the process:
Brokeback Mountain (which beat out Capote and Good Night, and Good Luck)
Black Swan (over 127 Hours, The Kids Are All Right and Winter’s Bone)
The Artist (The Descendants)
Silver Linings Playbook (Beasts of the Southern Wild)
12 Years a Slave (Nebraska)
Birdman (Boyhood, Selma and Whiplash)
Moonlight (Manchester by the Sea)
Get Out (Call Me by Your Name and Lady Bird)
This year, up for both are Nomadland and Minari. Whichever wins, if this stat is to be believed, another important clue will perhaps be revealed for the Academy Awards, that the loser is unlikely to win on the 25th – and, if both lose (which, however, is hard to fathom), possibly even more so…
Best Documentary Feature
All seven times the Oscar winner was nominated here, it won:
Bowling for Columbine (the only one also up for the Oscar)
The Fog of War (beating fellow Oscar nominee My Architect)
Man on Wire (The Betrayal and Encounters at the End of the World)
20 Feet from Stardom (The Act of Killing and The Square)
Citizenfour (The Salt of the Earth and Virunga)
O.J.: Made in America (13th and I Am Not Your Negro)
American Factory (For Sama and Honeyland)
As can be plainly seen, quite a few of the potential Academy Award winners in this category have been nominated by Film Independent, particularly of late. (And this list doesn’t, for brevity’s sake, even include the years in which the Oscar winner failed to be one of them.
For Sama, 13th and The Act of Killing all won the BAFTA, a rather important precursor, whereas Honeyland was also up for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars, a rare feat. This strength of opposition would appear to render this particular stat even more meaningful. In 2021, we have nominated at both the ISA and the Oscars:
The Mole Agent
So, whichever of them wins (unless all three lose – which, to be fair, looking at the history, seems like more of a possibility in this category than in the previous two), that will most probably be the challenger and potential spoiler to My Octopus Teacher on Oscar night. The two that don’t win, looking at the above, should also be out of the picture for the win on the 25th.
The other categories either feature too few past instances of the Oscar winner being up for an Independent Spirit Award (Best Editing – a more recently-introduced category at these awards – and Best Cinematography, specifically, with only three Oscar winners ever nominated between them, all of which prevailed here too) or don’t quite have the perfect matching records, like the ones above do; there are one or two exceptions in each.
In total, in all categories the ISA share with the Academy Awards (the five already mentioned plus directing, screenplay, the two supporting categories and international film), there have been 75 instances of the Oscar winner being in the lineup here as well, of which only 9 times did they fail to win. This is not particularly impressive (a pretty mediocre 88% win rate), but more interesting is that, since 2010 and the switch to 8-10 Best Picture nominees at the Oscars (which may or may not be a coincidence), there are only 3 such exceptions, out of 46 instances, making for a significantly better stat – 93%.
Thus, since this appears to be a general principle which might apply at least to some extent to all of these, despite some having witnessed more exceptions than others up to this point, it is perhaps also worth mentioning, briefly, which of this year’s Oscar nominees are also up for the respective Independent Spirit Award in these other categories:
Best Director (3 times the same director won both, in 4 instances in which the Oscar winner ended up being among the nominees here) – Chloé Zhao (Nomadland) and Lee Isaac Chung (Minari)
Best Supporting Actress (7/8 times) – only Youn Yuh-jung (Minari) is up for both
Best Supporting Actor (5/6) – only Paul Raci (Sound of Metal)
Best Screenplay (9/11) – Promising Young Woman and Minari
Best Editing (1/1) – only Nomadland
Best Cinematography (2/2) – only Nomadland
Best International Film (9/11) – only Quo Vadis, Aida?
If they hope to win the Oscar, each of these will, therefore, most likely need to prove their strength by winning here first. Which the ones expected to win with AMPAS likely will – but, if they don’t, watch out!… Evidently, merely being nominated here (as opposed to not) means nothing in particular for a contender’s Oscar chances, precisely due to so many Oscar hopefuls being ineligible.