×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Mickey Mouse waves to members of

    Spider-Man, Spicer and Splashy First-Looks: Everything We're Looking For at D23

    As if Disney hasn’t owned enough weekends this year at the box office, the biennial D23 Expo will light up Anaheim, Calif. over the next three days to celebrate the content monolith. From a new Netflix-competing streaming platform to scores of movie and series reveals — along with a few hot controversies to confront — [...]

  • Angel Has Fallen

    'Angel Has Fallen' to Dominate Modest Box Office With $20 Million Weekend

    Gerard Butler and Morgan Freeman are leading the way at the North American box office with “Angel Has Fallen” on its way to about $20 million, early estimates showed Friday. Should forecasts hold, “Angel Has Fallen” will take in about double the next title, Universal’s second weekend of raunchy comedy “Good Boys” with about $10 [...]

  • Aracne

    Sanfic Standout ‘Aracne’ Filmmakers Discuss the State of Chilean Genre

    A key project at this year’s Santiago Lab, the Santiago Intl. Film Festival industry forum for promising Latin American projects, Florencia Dupont’s “Aracne” is representative of a push from the next generation of Chilean filmmakers into genre cinema and the themes it can explore. “Aracne” turns on Beatriz, a young journalist at a small Santiago [...]

  • Eduardo Machuca

    Chile’s Eduardo Machuca Unveils Machuca Films Slate (EXCLUSIVE)

    SANTIAGO, Chile – Eduardo Machuca, the former film co-ordinator of Chile’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has launched his own production company, Machuca Films. “After 25 years at the ministry, I felt I needed to tap my creative side,” said Machuca, who is also tying the knot on Saturday (Aug. 25) with a former Sanfic staffer, [...]

  • Robert Downey Jr. Disney Legends Ceremony,

    Robert Downey Jr. Reveals He Was Busted for Smoking Pot at Disneyland

    Robert Downey Jr. celebrated his Disney Legend status by sharing the endearing tale of how the first time he visited Disneyland, he was arrested. The Iron Man actor was being honored in Anaheim at Disney’s biennial D23 convention. After a brief introduction by Disney chief executive officer Bob Iger, Downey felt he had to come [...]

  • Thandie Newton Reminiscence

    Thandie Newton Reteams With 'Westworld's' Lisa Joy on 'Reminiscence' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Following her Emmy win for her performance on “Westworld,” Thandie Newton is joining the feature directorial debut of the show’s co-creator. Sources tell Variety that Newton is set to join Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson in Warner Bros.’ “Reminiscence,” directed by “Westworld’s” Lisa Joy. WB acquired the rights to the package after this year’s Berlin [...]

  • Ming-Na Wen poses at the Disney

    Original 'Mulan' Star Ming-Na Wen Weighs in on Remake's Controversy

    Ming-Na Wen, who played the leading voice role in the original 1998 version of “Mulan,” has spoken out about the recent controversy surrounding Disney’s forthcoming live-action remake, which has been co-opted by China’s authoritarian regime to attack Hong Kong protestors. “We are living in a world right now where there’s so much change and confusion [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content