Nominations for Film Independent’s Spirit Awards were announced earlier today. As usual the Spirits were among the first groups to jump into the awards season fray, but also, other than the Oscars, the last to name winners (the ceremony is Saturday March 1, day before the Academy Awards). That means there can be a big momentum shift between now and then when the envelopes are opened.  But it does give a boost to certain films that qualify as “indies” under their rules (generally a budget under or around $20 million) as they build toward Oscar nominations.  Although the Spirits preclude many Oscar frontrunners such as Gravity, Captain Phillips, American Hustle, Saving Mr. Banks, Philomena, August: Osage County, The Wolf Of Wall Street, Prisoners and Lee Daniels’ The Butler to name a few they can provide some comfort for those crossover films whose smaller budgets make them eligible for both including newly-minted Best Film nominees  All Is Lost, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska and 12 Years A Slave which led all comers with 7 nods. Nebraska was a strong runner-up with 6 and would have tied, but inexplicably Phedon Papamichael’s exquisite black and white scope cinematography was somehow overlooked for the likes of Spring Breakers and Computer Chess. What’s up with that, indie people?

Nevertheless Oscar’s Best Picture list could include several of the Spirit choices and the same goes for the lead acting categories where Bruce Dern, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oscar Isaac, Robert Redford, Matthew McConaughey (a winner last year at the Spirits) and Michael B. Jordan all have reasonable chances to make the corresponding Oscar lineup as well as Blue Jasmine’s Cate Blanchett who likely will have a very good early March weekend at both the Spirits and the Oscars for lead actress. There is also even more opportunity for an Oscar match in supporting categories with possible crossover contenders like Michael Fassbender, Jared Leto, James Gandolfini, Sally Hawkins, Lupita Nyong’o and June Squibb. By the way it seems criminal that the Spirit committee liked Enough Said to nominate its script and Gandolfini but not  Julia Louis-Dreyfus?

I was disappointed in the Supporting Male category to see snubs for The Way Way Back’s terrific Sam Rockwell and that neither Ryan Gosling or Bradley Cooper made the cut for the underrated The Place Beyond The Pines. In fact both those earlier 2013 releases were completely forgotten by the Spirits nominating committee.  Surprisingly they didn’t forget the June release, Frances Ha which was the 5th film nominated for Best Film, but if they liked it that much why ignore Greta Gerwig, the star who lit that picture up? Yet she sits on the sidelines this year with Louis-Dreyfus. And though it grabbed a couple of well-deserved acting nominations (including the wonderful Brie Larson) it seems to me a Best Film slot should have gone to Short Term 12, perhaps the film with the most “indie Spirit” I saw all year.

Increasingly the Spirits seem to be trying more consciously to match what they think Oscar voters will crown rather than truly “independent” movies. It’s always a fine line to walk but the Spirits want a glamorous red carpet themselves on that weekend so maybe that could be part of the reason we are seeing this trend. The Spirits have a TV deal with IFC and want to deliver viewers too. Higher profile nominees help, just as they do at the Oscars. Last year’s big winner, Silver Linings Playbook was also a major Best Picture nominee (and Jennifer Lawrence triumphed at both ceremonies).  And the 2011 Spirit champ, The Artist actually won Best Pic at the Oscars. Ironically The Weinstein Company, which released both those films, had a relatively light day at the Spirit noms with mentions only for Fruitvale Station as Best First Feature for Ryan Coogler plus a couple of acting nods and a documentary nomination for Twenty Feet From Stardom from their Radius division (the awards gods giveth and taketh away on the same day as the latter film and TWC were snubbed in the PGA Documentary nominations just announced). The bulk of Weinstein’s large lineup this year did not qualify for the Spirits for one reason or another.

I think this all bodes well for Fox Searchlight and 12 Years A Slave which also scored at the Gothams and looks to steamroll the upcoming critics groups award-giving marathon. That kind of momentum will be important once it hits the Globes and the Oscars where the going could be tougher. Nebraska also is looking strong after today and could be a real sleeper as the season gets rolling in earnest. Paramount is so far running an effective stealth campaign and it may be paying off. This is an extremely competitive year. But we’re off and running.  Congrats to all the Spirit nominees. See you in March under the big tent at the beach.