By Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Gritty slavery drama "12 Years a Slave" leads the race for the Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday, as the film community gathers to honor smaller-budget and art house movies that are often strong contenders at the Academy Awards the next day.
Directed by Steve McQueen, "12 Years a Slave" earned seven Spirit Awards nominations including best feature, director, best actor for Chiwetel Ejiofor and best supporting nods for Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o.
The film has sparked a conversation on racial equality during awards season with its portrayal of the harsh, brutal reality of America's slavery history. It has become the frontrunner for Sunday's Oscars, where it will vie for the top races including best picture, actor and director.
The Spirit Awards, held in a giant tent on California's Santa Monica beach and hosted this year by Patton Oswalt, is a more casual affair compared to the glamour and glitz of the Oscars.
Notable Spirit Awards winners in previous years that have gone on to win the Oscar the following day include Natalie Portman winning best actress for "Black Swan" in 2011, and Jennifer Lawrence for "Silver Linings Playbook" last year.
This year's best actress race will feature Cate Blanchett for "Blue Jasmine," Julie Delpy for "Before Midnight," Brie Larson for "Short Term 12," Shailene Woodley from "The Spectacular Now" and Gaby Hoffman for "Crystal Fairy."
Blanchett is also nominated for the Oscar in the same category and is a frontrunner to win on Sunday.
Delpy, who is also nominated for the Spirit Award best screenplay category for "Before Midnight" along with co-writers Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater, said the recognition in writing was particularly meaningful for her.
"People were not taking me seriously until eventually they did, but it took me 15 years," the actress said at a Women in Film event on Friday. "I'm very excited. This is a true work of love for the three of us, and it's great, fantastic, a lot of fun."
Delpy, Hawke and Linklater are also nominated in the best adapted screenplay Oscar category.
The Spirit Awards, sponsored by the Los Angeles-based non-profit group Film Independent, are Hollywood's top honors for independent film and art house projects. The ceremony is televised later on Saturday at 10 p.m. EDT on cable network IFC.
(Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)