Everything You’d Ever Need to Know About the Film Independent Spirit Awards

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Photo Source: Caitlin Watkins

The Film Independent Spirit Awards ceremony is like award season’s hipster cousin. Celebrating the year in indie cinema, it is held each year the day before the Oscars—on a beach. And while it’ll never show up that fancier, more prominent show, it does muscle in on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s territory by touting its film nerd savvy. Though smaller films have won big trophies at the Oscars in recent years, the Spirits have always been championing the underdogs of Hollywood. Here’s everything you need to know about them. 


Who votes on the Film Independent Spirit Awards?

In some ways, the Spirit Awards are modeled after the People’s Choice Awards. Winners are chosen by the members of the organization Film Independent, a Los Angeles-based non-profit organization that helps promote and support indie film, which anyone with a passion for moviemaking can join for a fee. It runs programs at LACMA and labs for up-and-comers, as well as panels and screenings throughout the year. It’s worth noting, however, that the Spirit Awards’ nominations are selected by a committee comprised of various film professionals.

To read more about Film Independent, check out our interview with org president Josh Welsh.

How do they vote?

The nominees are first determined by a small committee of film world denizens, among them actors, writers, directors, critics, and more. Once the contenders are selected then the voting is opened up to all members of Film Independent who select their favorites online. Each year’s voting period usually begins in February.

When did they first take place?

A version of the Spirits was first held in 1984 when Film Independent was known as the Independent Features Project/West. Those were deemed the FINDIE Awards, an acronym for Friends of Independents. Two years later, however, the event started to look a little more like it does now. It was deemed the Independent Spirit Awards and the members of what was then the IFP voted on the winners, with Peter Coyote hosting. The name Film Independent was adopted in 2005.

When and where are the Spirit Awards held this year?

The 38th annual Independent Spirit Awards will take place on March 4, 2023, at the Hotel Casa del Mar in Santa Monica, CA. Here is the full list of nominations

Who do they honor?

Independent filmmakers! The rules for what is considered independent and therefore eligible for a Spirit are fairly specific. Most importantly, a film can’t be too expensive: the final price of the project must come in at under $22.5 million. There is even a specific accolade—the John Cassavetes Award—for ultra low-budget projects that cost less than $500,000. Aside from the documentary and, obviously, international film categories, all contenders must be American productions.

Recently added to the Spirit Awards list was a novel medium: television! While the criteria for what is considered indie TV remain less strict, Film Independent’s mission “supports and celebrates visual storytellers wherever they practice their craft,” per board chair Mary Sweeney in a statement. “The addition of TV Spirit Awards recognizes this expansion by celebrating diverse independent, creative voices across platforms.”

What is the complete list of Spirit Award categories?

  • Best Feature
  • Best First Feature
  • Best First Screenplay
  • Best Screenplay
  • John Cassavetes Award
  • Best Director
  • Best Cinematography
  • Best Editor
  • Best Lead Performance in a New Film 
  • Best Supporting Performance in a New Film
  • Best Documentary
  • Best International Film
  • Best New Scripted Series
  • Best New Non-Scripted or Documentary Series
  • Best Lead Performance in a New Scripted Series
  • Best Supporting Performance in a Scripted Series

In 2023, Film Independent implemented gender neutral categories, with ten-nominee lead and supporting nods taking the place of "best male" and "best female" tags. 

A couple of winners are decided upon when the nominations are announced. That includes the Robert Altman Award for an ensemble, which goes to the actors, director, and casting directors on a project. (“One Night in Miami” was the 2021 recipient.) As of 2021, another non-competitive honor, Best Ensemble Cast in a Scripted Series, is also announced beforehand. (“I May Destroy You” was 2021’s winning cast.)

Also, Film Independent hands out sponsored grants to exciting new talent which are entirely awarded via committee. Those include the Bonnie Award, for a “mid-career female director”; the Truer Than Fiction Award, for an “emerging director of nonfiction features who has not yet received significant recognition”; the Someone To Watch Award, for a “talented filmmaker of singular vision who has not yet received appropriate recognition”; and the Producers Award, for “emerging producers who, despite highly limited resources, demonstrate the creativity, tenacity, and vision required to produce quality, independent films.”

How can I join Film Independent?

Easy! With a $95 general membership you get to be a Film Independent member and vote. Just buy one at filmindependent.org.

What is their relation to other major awards shows?

The Spirits are a precursor to the Oscars in the most literal sense. Typically, they are held the Saturday afternoon before the Academy’s big night. But they can also offer an alternative view of the landscape, depending on the year. For example, the 2022 Indie Spirit winner for best feature, "The Lost Daughter," wasn't even nominated for best picture at the Oscars. The year before, however, "Nomadland" won the top prize on both nights.

How can I become a Spirit Award winner?

Good question!

  • Get an agent
  • Audition, especially for independent films (maybe you’ll find a great film role on Backstage!)
  • Then book the job with the help of a casting director
  • Your hit film’s producers and filmmakers might submit the title to prestigious film festivals to garner buzz, then to the Spirit Awards
  • Rub shoulders with the indie film industry’s best!

This article was originally published on Feb. 15, 2018 and has been updated throughout.