'Spotlight': How it triumphed by taking Best Picture on Oscars night

Industry watchers called the Best Picture race one of the hardest to predict this year. So how did the journalism drama 'Spotlight' end up winning the high-profile award? 

Kerry Hayes/Open Road Films/AP
'Spotlight' stars (from l.) Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, and Brian d'Arcy James.

The journalism drama “Spotlight” won the Best Picture Oscar at the 2016 Academy Awards ceremony, triumphing over other presumed frontrunners such as "The Revenant” and “The Big Short.”

“Spotlight” tells the true story of Boston Globe staff, played by Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, and Brian d’Arcy James, who investigate sexual abuse in the Catholic church. The reporters were awarded a Pulitzer Prize for their work.

It was believed to be an unpredictable year for Best Picture. Other awards like the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the prizes bestowed by the Directors Guild of America are often believed to offer clues as to what will take the big award on Oscars night. But this year, many of these awards were split, with, among others, “Spotlight” winning the SAG Award for best cast and the film “The Big Short” winning the equivalent of Best Picture at the Producers Guild of America Awards.

So how did the drama “Spotlight” take the big prize when it came to the Academy Awards?

Los Angeles Times writer Kenneth Turan wrote that one reason “Spotlight” won was the power of its themes.

“It successfully conveyed its significance, something that Oscar voters look on with favor,” Turan wrote of the movie’s win. “When I started to see ads saying things like ‘One Film Breaks the Silence, One Film Moved Us With the Truth,’ I started to see how ‘Spotlight’ could win.”

Meanwhile, New York Times writer Cara Buckley felt that both the way those behind “Spotlight” represented the film’s message, bringing along with them during awards season the original journalists, and sentiment against other competition like “Short” and “Revenant” both worked in favor for “Spotlight.” 

“The director Tom McCarthy, affable, charming, and earnest, worked the awards circuit beautifully, and drove home the film’s message: Accountability is important,” Buckley wrote of “Spotlight.” “And he, along with the film’s stars, traveled the circuit with the original Boston Globe team in tow. There were also strong currents against the two other leading films: the fizzy, swift-moving ‘The Big Short,’ from the director Adam McKay, did not quite feel like a best picture winner. Its fast-paced explanations of complex financial maneuverings also left many academy members scratching their heads. And ‘The Revenant,’ while revered, was, at its heart, a simple revenge story, beautifully filmed, yes, but also slightly indulgent and long.” 

Vulture writer Kyle Buchanan agreed. 

“It had a whole lot of other things going in its favor, including a social significance that was arguably greater than its competitors and, most important, an awards-season team led by veteran strategist Lisa Taback that fought for every last vote,” Buchanan wrote of “Spotlight.” “ … The flashier films proved to be flashes in the pan, and slow-and-steady ‘Spotlight’ took the gold.”

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