Oscars 2015: Fox Searchlight, New Regency Nab Second Straight Best Picture Win

Nancy Utley Steve Gilula Brad Weston Split - H 2015
AP Images/Invision

Nancy Utley Steve Gilula Brad Weston Split - H 2015

'Birdman' flew away with this year's top Academy Award, while '12 Years a Slave' won in 2014.

For the second year in a row, specialty distributor Fox Searchlight and production company New Regency have taken home the best picture Oscar. Last year, it was 12 Years a Slave. This year, it's Birdman. But while that winning streak is impressive in itself, what makes it even more remarkable is that Birdman almost didn't happen.

In the fall of 2012, director Alejandro G. Inarritu and Regency president-CEO Brad Weston settled into a table at Ago, the West Hollywood Italian eatery co-owned by Robert De Niro. They were at their wit's end. Their plans to begin production on The Revenant with Fox Searchlight had been waylaid when Leonardo DiCaprio signed up for Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street.

Next, they thought about turning Jennifer Vogel's memoir, Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father's Counterfeit Life into a film, but they couldn't get the financing together. At the lunch, Inarritu brought up a script he'd been working on forever. "He gave it to us and to Searchlight at the same time, and we read it within 24 hours. It was Birdman," recalls Weston, "and it was awesome."

Birdman's heroic flight from script to Academy Award victor further cements a powerful partnership between Searchlight and Regency. Regency is currently in production on Inarritu's next film, The Revenant, which has just wrapped shooting and is already tipped to be a player in next year's awards race. (DiCaprio did indeed end up starring, with big Fox distributing.)

Awards are the gold standard for a specialty distributor like Searchlight, run by co-presidents Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula, and the company's winning streak — claiming the mantle that has often gone to their competitor, Harvey Weinstein — further bolsters Searchlight's standing as a shrewd production, acquisitions and marketing outfit able sell even difficult titles both to award voters and to the public.

Between Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel, Searchlight dominated Sunday's Oscar ceremony. Each film took home four statuettes, including a best director for Inarritu and the best cinematographer award for Emmanuel Lubezki, his second consecutive win after last year's Gravity.

All told, Searchlight boasted 20 Oscar nominations this year, the most in its 20-year history, spread among Birdman (nine), Wes Anderson's best picture contender The Grand Budapest Hotel (nine) and Wild, which earned two nominations, including one for actress Reese Witherspoon. (Budapest and Birdman also earned the most noms of any film). By the end of this year's awards, Birdman and Budapest had taken home four Oscars each, giving Searchlight bragging rights to a total of eight, far more than any other distributor this year.

Grand Budapest is also a notable victory for Searchlight, considering it was released in March, well outside of awards season. The movie won Oscars for best costume design, makeup and hairstyling, production design and score.

Searchlight has earned a dozen best picture nominations since 2004, including noms for Sideways, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, The Descendants and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Until 12 Years, though, Searchlight's one win was for Slumdog Millionaire, released in 2008. Eight of the 12 best picture nominations have come in the last five years, the best showing of any distributor.

Still, like any film company these days, Searchlight is keen to bring on co-financing and producing partners. Enter Arnon Milchan's New Regency, which has long made its home at 20th Century Fox, Searchlight's parent studio.

Since Weston's arrival in 2011, Regency has become more filmmaker-driven, resulting in projects such as 12 Years and Birdman, which are natural fits for Searchlight. Regency has first-look deals with a raft of top directors, including David Fincher and Darren Aronofsky. (Regency co-financed his Gone Girl.)

Brad Pitt's Plan B also has a deal at Regency, which fully financed Plan B's 12 Years a Slave before Searchlight came aboard to distribute and market the film. Searchlight and Regency co-financed Birdman, which cost just north of $16 million to make.

Feb. 23, 3:15 p.m. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Searchlight's involvement with The Revenant.