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Spirit Awards: ‘Moonlight’ Dominates En Route to the Oscars

Four of the last five Film Independent Spirit Award winners for best feature have gone on to secure the best picture Oscar. But that wasn’t always the status quo. Rather, it’s indicative of the Academy Awards’ slow evolution into something resembling the Spirits.

The last best feature Spirit winner to sit out the Oscars’ top race was “The Wrestler” in 2008, which was notably the last time the Academy’s best picture field was limited to five nominees. Since that shift, every Spirit champ has also been Oscar-nominated for best picture (some fudged in thanks to softly governed budgetary limitations).

Why? You have to go back to that very critical Academy decision eight years ago, expanding the best picture field first to 10 nominees, then to anywhere from five to 10 depending on how Byzantine math unfolds. It was a move meant to open the door to popular films, but instead it ballooned the category into a slate of smaller movies like “A Serious Man,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “Winter’s Bone,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Nebraska,” “Whiplash,” “Room” — Spirit thoroughbreds, essentially.

Interestingly, this all happened just as the major studios were focusing less and less on the kinds of stories that attract Academy Award nominations, and more on scalable intellectual properties that have turned the business of Hollywood into something very different than what it was even a decade ago.

It used to be that the Oscars and the Spirits were more like far, far distant cousins. “Stand and Deliver,” “sex, lies, and videotape,” “Rambling Rose” — these were movies the Spirits celebrated, but the Academy could only bring itself to recognize in performance and screenplay categories at best. However, amid a general mid-1990s boom for American indies, these movies slowly began to infiltrate the best picture Oscar scene. “Pulp Fiction” and “Fargo” poked through first, and before long — as studio-affiliated arms like Fox Searchlight and Focus Features enjoyed a heyday — “Lost in Translation,” “Sideways” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” among others.

But victory at the Academy Awards remained elusive, so much so that an industry maxim was born: “Win on Saturday, lose on Sunday.” You had to go all the way back back to 1986’s “Platoon” for the last Spirit/Oscar victor. But that all changed with “The Artist” five years ago. Since then, “12 Years a Slave,” “Birdman” and “Spotlight” have followed in its wake.

Which brings me to this year. “La La Land,” a pure product of the modern awards movie road map — fall festival debut followed by platform release — was made at a mid-range price point ($30 million) that took it out of Spirits consideration. That ceded the territory to Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” which won six awards Saturday afternoon including best feature, best director and best screenplay. It would have been interesting to see them head to head on this particular turf, but a $1.5 million passion project from a filmmaker nearly a decade removed from his debut feature is right at home at the Spirits.

These two films have danced with each other since world premiering mere days apart five months ago. They were neck-and-neck throughout the critics’ awards circuit, but “La La Land” eventually pulled away with major guild victories. If the usual best picture tea leaves are correct, we’ll be back to “win on Saturday, lose on Sunday” this year, but Saturday unequivocally belonged to a vital, soft-spoken artist from Miami who gave the industry and audiences a gift in 2016.

Whatever happens tomorrow, “Moonlight” is forever.

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