Oscars: Why 'Spotlight' Was the Last Film Standing at the End of a Most Unusual Season (Analysis)

THR's awards columnist breaks down what happened on Sunday night — and why.
'Spotlight' wins the best picture Oscar.  Kevin Winter/Getty Images

What appeared to be the closest best picture Oscar race in the 21st century was won on Sunday night by Spotlight, which vanquished The Revenant and The Big Short, as well as five other nominees.

This was the first time in 63 years, since The Greatest Show on Earth beat High Noon and The Quiet Man, that a film won top honors along with only one other award. And it makes Tom Ortenberg’s Open Road Films one of the youngest distributors ever to claim top honors. (Summit Entertainment had been an independent production/distribution company for less than three years when it won the Oscar for The Hurt Locker in 2010. Open Road, founded in 2011, is less than five years old, younger than other companies like Orion and DreamWorks were when they first captured the best picture prize.)

How did it happen?

Spotlight was a beneficiary of the preferential ballot employed by the Academy and only one other major awards group, the Producers Guild of America. This system is intended to produce a winner that everyone at least likes — a film that might appear at No. 2 or 3 on most ballots — as opposed to one that the largest fraction of people loved but most others did not, like DGA Award winner The Revenant.

The PGA's employment of this system produced a PGA Award win for The Big Short, which, for a time, put that dramedy in the pole position for the Oscar in the view of most pundits. But there was a difference that many of us failed to account for: The PGA is comprised of producers, whereas the largest branch of the Academy is comprised of actors, whose clear preference was Spotlight, as evidenced by the SAG Awards. Pundits should be forgiven, though: On the four other occasions in which the top three guilds each picked a different winner, the best picture Oscar twice went to the PGA's pick and twice to the DGA's pick, but never to SAG's pick — until Sunday.

The team behind The Revenant spent an estimated $8 million chasing Oscars, and in the end wound up with three, each of great significance: Alejandro G. Inarritu won best director, becoming the first person in 65 years to win that prize in consecutive years (and only the third ever); Leonardo DiCaprio won best actor, finally becoming an Oscar winner 22 years after his first nomination; and Emmanuel Lubezki won best cinematography, becoming the first person ever to win that prize in three consecutive years (on the heels of Gravity and Birdman).

Open Road's awards campaign did not spend anywhere close to that, but the company spent a lot more than it had previously on an awards campaign. (It's not easy or inexpensive to maintain frontrunner status for an entire awards season, as Spotlight did!) That's largely because Ortenberg — heretofore best known for guiding Crash to a shocking best picture Oscar upset win a decade ago while president of theatrical films at Lionsgate — saw great potential for his film early on and went all in on it. Like Crash, Spotlight is a movie with a giant ensemble of well-liked actors — all of whom have a lot of friends in the Academy who may be predisposed to supporting them — about an undeniably important social issue.

It was the tandem of Liz Biber, Open Road's exec vp publicity, and Lisa Taback, the veteran awards consultant, who hammered home the latter point. From the Toronto International Film Festival through Oscar night itself, they brought the real journalists and survivors portrayed in the film on the circuit with them, which gave the pic a badge of credibility that few others possessed. And they helped to facilitate pseudo-events — like a screening of the film for the Vatican Commission investigating sexual abuse and an award for the real journalists from the Los Angeles Press Club — that emphasized the notion that the movie was making a real-world impact. Whether it was or wasn't at the time, it is now, and that's largely because they so effectively beat the drum for it.

(It must also be noted that the stars of Spotlight — including Michael Keaton, who has now starred in two consecutive best picture Oscar winners — made themselves a lot more available to support their film throughout the season than the stars of The Revenant or The Big Short, who were, with very few exceptions, AWOL, which, without question, undercut their pics' campaigns.)

The Academy spread its other top awards around. The Big Short won best adapted screenplay (yes, the guy who directed Anchorman and Step Brothers, Adam McKay, is now an Oscar winner, and deservedly so). Room's Brie Larson won best actress (Taback was also instrumental in that campaign, as well as those for documentary feature Amy and Spectre's best original song hopeful "Writing's on the Wall," which also yielded wins). Bridge of Spies' Mark Rylance won best supporting actor (upsetting the heavy favorite, Creed's Sylvester Stallone, who may have made one too many bad movies in the 39 years since his prior acting nom for the original Rocky), becoming only the second actor or actress to win an Oscar for a Steven Spielberg film, after Lincoln's Daniel Day-Lewis). The Danish Girl's Alicia Vikander won best supporting actress (capping her star-is-born season).

Elsewhere, Spectre's "Writing's on the Wall," by Sam Smith and Jimmy Napes, winning best original song (in no small part because it was from the only film represented in the category that most voters ever saw) meant a loss for The Hunting Ground's "Til It Happens to You," by Lady Gaga and now eight-time bridesmaid Diane Warren. And Mad Max: Fury Road, a film that wasn't on anyone's radar as a probable Oscar contender before it opened some nine months ago, wound up winning the most Oscars of all, six, in almost all of the crafts categories — one exception being best visual effects, which produced a big upset when little indie Ex Machina topped Mad Max, Revenant and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, becoming only the second non-best picture nominee ever to beat a best picture nominee in that category. (It makes one wonder how close Ex Machina came to getting a best picture nom, especially considering it made the PGA's top 10 list.)

Thus ends one of the most unusual Oscar seasons in recent memory. But another is beginning, and already has a frontrunner out of January's Sundance Film Festival: the grand jury and audience award winner The Birth of a Nation. And if you thought the racial climate in Hollywood was heated this season, well, to quote Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, "You ain't seen nothin' yet."

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