Film Independent Spirit Awards: Recognizing Excellence in Indie Film

Actor Adam Sandler accepts the Best Lead Actor Award at the 2020 Film Independent Spirit Awards
SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 08: Adam Sandler accepts the Best Male Lead award for 'Uncut Gems' onstage during the 2020 Film Independent Spirit Awards on February 08, 2020 in Santa Monica, California.

Michael Kovac / Getty Images

While all eyes are typically on the Academy Awards, a very prestigious award ceremony recognizing achievements in independent film is held the same weekend just a few miles away. The Film Independent Spirit Awards (frequently referred to as just the Spirit Awards) were first held in 1986. The honor is awarded to independent filmmakers based on four criteria:

  • Diversity, innovation, uniqueness of vision
  • Original, provocative subject matter
  • Economy of means (with particular attention paid to total production cost and individual compensation)
  • Percentage of financing from independent sources

These criteria enable the Independent Spirit Awards to recognize filmmakers overlooked by the Academy Awards, influential filmmakers at the very beginning of the careers, and studio filmmakers who take on projects of more modest financial means.

Did You Know?

From 2014 to 2017, the film that won Best Feature at the Film Independent Spirit Awards also won Best Picture at the Academy Awards the following night.

Origin of the Independent Spirit Awards

The Independent Feature Project/West was formed in the early 1980s as an organization for independent filmmakers (most notably by the efforts of husband and wife filmmakers Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas) that would allow them to connect with resources to help create, release, and promote their work. Board member Jeanne Lucas proposed that the organization create an award ceremony as a way to bring attention to indie films.

The Independent Spirit Awards were originally called the FINDIE Awards (Friends of Independents Awards), and since the first year the design of the award has featured a shoestring as part of the design to represent the “shoestring budgets” of many independent features.

In 1986, the first ceremony featured awards for Best Cinematography, Best Male Lead, Best Female Lead, Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Feature, and a Special Distinction Award (awarded to Kiss of the Spider Woman). Martin Scorsese's After Hours won Best Feature, and Scorsese tied with director Joel Coen for Best Director (who was nominated for Blood Simple). In its second year, the awards added the Best First Feature category to honor first-time feature directors; similarly, the Best First Screenplay award was introduced in 1995. However, a film cannot be nominated for both Best Feature and Best First Feature or Best Screenplay and Best First Screenplay, and any film under consideration for both awards will be considered for the overall honor before the subsequent “first” honor.

The John Cassavetes Award, named in honor of groundbreaking independent filmmaker John Cassavetes, was introduced in 2000 and is awarded to the best film made with a budget of less than $500,000. The first winner was The Blair Witch Project (1999), the pioneering found footage horror film that was produced on a $60,000 budget. The John Cassavetes Award is one of several that are selected by the Independent Spirit Awards nominating committees and is not voted on by the Members of Film Independent. Other honors selected by the nominating committee are the Producers Award (presented to emerging independent film producers), Someone to Watch (presented to a notable filmmaker), Truer Than Fiction (presented to a notable non-fiction filmmaker), the Robert Altman Award (presented to the ensemble cast, director, and casting director of a film for its standout performances), and the Bonnie Award (awarded to a “mid-career” female director).

Today, the organization behind the ceremony is known as Film Independent. Since 1999, the Film Independent Spirit Awards are held on the day before the Academy Awards inside a large tent on the beach of Santa Monica, California. It is approximately 13 miles west of the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, the site of the Academy Awards since 2002.

Eligibility for the Independent Spirit Awards

Currently, one of the main criteria for eligibility for the Independent Spirit Awards is budget. As of 2020, the budget for a film must be under $22.5 million. A film must also be at least 70 minutes long to be eligible. In addition, the film must have been included in at least one of seven qualifying film festivals during the period of eligibility. As of 2020, those festivals are the Sundance Film Festival, the SXSW Film Festival, New Directors/New Films Festival, the Telluride Film Festival, the Tribeca Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, and the New York Film Festival. Alternately, a film must screen for one week in a commercial theater in the United States independent of out-of-competition film festival screenings.

Contrary to common belief, films financed by major film studios, either directly or by their “independent” distribution companies (such as Sony’s Sony Pictures Classics) are eligible if they fulfill the other rules for eligibility and are deemed sufficiently “original and provocative” by the Spirit Awards nominating committee. Candidates are selected by the nominating committee and are announced in November.

After the nominees are selected, the winners are voted on by the Members of Film Independent, a non-profit organization devoted to the appreciation of independent film. Unlike organizations like the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences of the Directors Guild of America, members of the public can apply to join Film Independent and become voters.

Filmmaker Patty Jenkins posing with the Independent Spirit Award for Best Director that she won for 2003's 'Monster'
SANTA MONICA, CA - FEBRUARY 28: "Monster" director Patty Jenkins poses backstage with the award for "Best First Feature" during the 2004 IFP Independent Spirit Awards February 28, 2004 in Santa Monica, California.  (Photo by Carlo Allegri/Getty Images)

Notable Independent Spirit Award Winners

Six films that have won Best Film at the Independent Spirit Awards have gone on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture: Platoon (1986), The Artist (2011), 12 Years a Slave (2013), Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014), Spotlight (2015), and Moonlight (2016). The Best First Film of 2006, Crash, also went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Many notable film directors have won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Director, including:

  • Martin Scorsese (1985's After Hours)
  • Joel Coen (1985's Blood Simple and 1996's Fargo)
  • Oliver Stone (1986's Platoon)
  • John Huston ( 1987's The Dead)
  • Steven Soderbergh (1989's Sex, Lies, and Videotape)
  • Robert Altman (1993's Short Cuts)
  • Quentin Tarantino (1994's Pulp Fiction)
  • Wes Anderson (1998's Rushmore)
  • Alexander Payne (1999's Election and 2004's Sideways)
  • Ang Lee (2000's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and 2005's Brokeback Mountain)
  • Christopher Nolan (2001's Memento)
  • Sofia Coppola (2003's Lost in Translation)
  • Darren Aronofsky (2010's Black Swan)
  • David O. Russell (2012's Silver Linings Playbook)
  • Steve McQueen (2013's 12 Years a Slave)
  • Richard Linklater (2014's Boyhood)
  • Barry Jenkins (2016's Moonlight and 2018's If Beale Street Could Talk)
  • Jordan Peele (2017's Get Out)

In addition, many filmmakers that later became major names have won the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature:

  • Spike Lee (1986's She's Gotta Have It)
  • Whit Stillman (1990's Metropolitan
  • Robert Rodriguez (1993's El Mariachi)
  • David O. Russell (1994's Spanking the Monkey
  • Edward Burns (1995's The Brothers McMullen)
  • Billy Bob Thornton (1996's Sling Blade)
  • Kasi Lemmons (1997's Eve's Bayou)
  • Spike Jonze (1999's Being John Malkovich)
  • Kenneth Lonergan (2000's You Can Count on Me)
  • Patty Jenkins (2003's Monster)
  • Charlie Kaufman (2008's Synecdoche, New York)
  • Scott Cooper (2009's Crazy Heart)
  • J.C. Chandor (2011's Margin Call)
  • Ryan Coogler (2013's Fruitvale Station)
  • Olivia Wilde (2019's Booksmart)