The avalanche of advance speculation, live Twitterage and post-game analysis that surrounded yesterday's announcement of the Independent Spirit Award nominees was indicative, perhaps, of the way the internet has amped up every stop on the ever-expanding awards trail -- however minor its real-world presence -- to event status. But it also proved that the Spirits are no longer as small, nor as off-the-beaten-track, as their calculatedly modest presentation would have you believe.They haven't been for a while: for better or worse, they're now considered as valuable (if, by their very nature, not as all-encompassing) an Oscar bellwether as any of the glitzier Globe or Guild events on the circuit.

Sasha Stone tweeted yesterday that she was struggling to keep calm ahead of the nominations, as if their unveiling carried the same Christmas-morning tingle as the Oscar nods themselves. That degree of excitement may still strike you as excessive, but even a decade ago, it was hard to imagine anyone but the actual nominees getting that worked up about the announcement. Times have changed; the Spirits now have to disguise their Hollywood clout behind a cover of hip, offhand quirk -- imagine a heavily tattooed Harvey Weinstein squeezed into a pair of skinny jeans. Or perhaps you'd rather not, but you get the idea.  

The degree of scrutiny and industry lobbying that attends the awards these days would have been unimaginable when the first Spirits ceremony took place nearly 28 years ago. The four (yes, four -- reflecting the Oscar format wasn't such a priority in those days) nominees for Best Picture were the Coen Brothers' debut feature "Blood Simple," Martin Scorsese's "After Hours," Joyce Chopra's "Smooth Talk" and Peter Masterson's "The Trip to Bountiful" scored only two Oscar nominations between them. Both belonged to "Bountiful," whose veteran leading lady Geraldine Page became the only Spirit winner that year to repeat at the Oscars. (The only other Spirit nominees even to cross the Academy's radar were non-US entries "Ran" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman.")

It wouldn't take long for Oscar and Spirit voters to see a little more eye-to-eye -- the very next year, they agreed that Oliver Stone's "Platoon" was the best 1986 had to offer -- but they remained in largely separate universes for a good long while. To some extent, that distance has been maintained: only "The Artist" has repeated Stone's Spirit-Oscar double in the Best Picture category. But the boundaries between them have largely melted away: in the Spirits' first 10 years, only two of their Best Picture nominees were recognized in the Academy's top category, compared to 16 in their most recent decade. (Yes, the expansion of the Oscar field aids this inclusiveness.) Best Actor: four in the first decade, 17 in the last. The same figures, funnily enough, go for Best Actress.

Compared yesterday's nominee slate to that inaugural 1985 crop and most things have changed, as some stay the same. 28 years and four Oscars later, the Coens are nominated again, this time for "Inside Llewyn Davis"; the difference is that their 16th feature, unlike their first, descends upon the Spirits with a luxurious trail of Oscar buzz and industry experience, like a former prom queen dropping in on her old high school for a visit. It's not alone: of its fellow Best Feature nominees, "12 Years a Slave," "Nebraska" and "All is Lost" are all assured some measure of Oscar attention. Only "Frances Ha" looks likely likely to be a Spirits-only deal, and even here, its status is that of a lovable long shot -- the voters' token nod to rough-hewn independent filmmaking that isn't Academy-flavored. 

What's changed? The Oscars, for starters -- no longer as studio-bound as they used to be, they've lately attached a kind of preferred nobility to independently produced films that nonetheless bear the comforting varnish of familiar actors or auteurs. (Or, in the case of "The Artist," the character of Hollywood itself.) Earlier this year, Warner Bros. and Ben Affleck's "Argo" broke a five-year streak of notional "indies" winning the Best Picture award; ever since "American Beauty" (not itself an independent film, but one with a non-studio sensibility) became the first Toronto-reared Best Picture winner 14 years ago, independent spirit has become the Academy's new normal.

But the Academy's growing receptiveness to films from outside the big studios' domain doesn't entirely account for the relative "mainstreaming" of the Spirits' choices -- whether intentionally or otherwise, the two institutions seem more to have met each other halfway. The Spirits' qualifying budget ceiling of $20 million, and the eligibility of starry in-house productions from outfits like Focus and The Weinstein Company, allows them to include a significant proportion of the year's American prestige titles -- particularly as franchise-fixated studios seem ever more reluctant to produce serious, adult-oriented middlebrow fare of the type that used to routinely win them Best Picture Oscars.

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