How the lights almost went dark on Oscar winner 'Spotlight'

By Christopher Palmeri
Chicago Tribune
February 29, 2016

The newspaper drama "Spotlight" pulled off a surprise win over frontier saga "The Revenant" for best picture honors at the Academy Awards Sunday night. The bigger plot twist, though, may be that the film ever made it into theaters in the first place.

The back story of how the movie got done shows the perilous and often winding road films without obvious commercial appeal face and the crucial role independent financiers can play in keeping such projects going forward. "Spotlight" had the added challenge about covering a topic that could make audiences squeamish -- the cover-up of a pedophilia scandal in the Catholic church.

"It wasn't ever going to be a movie for the big studios," said Jonathan King, an executive at Participant Media, which backed the film. "Major studios are interested in 'Deadpool,'" he said, referring to the 21st Century Fox Inc. superhero film that has led the U.S. box office for the past three weekends. "That's their business model."

A critically acclaimed film like "Spotlight," which had already won several honors before its victory on Oscar night, can produce returns for its investors. The movie. which cost $20 million to make, has taken in $61.8 million worldwide since its release in November, according to Box Office Mojo. Last year's winner "Birdman" cost $18 million to make and ended up with $103 million in box office returns. Box office receipts must be split with theaters, and movie budgets don't include expenses for marketing.

But filmmakers churn out dozens of independent films each year, and not every one can win the Oscar. The animated film "Anomalisa," which lost to "Spotlight" for best feature at the Film Independent Spirit Awards, has generated $2.6 million so far against a budget of $8 million, according to Box Office Mojo.

The best-picture win for "Spotlight," along with the Oscar Singer and McCarthy won Sunday for best original screenplay. will also help the film bring in more revenue from home video and video-on-demand. That's where many independent movies get the majority of their sales.

Novice producers Blye Pagon Faust and Nicole Rocklin made the big bet on "Spotlight," seeing cinematic potential in the tale of how reporters and editors at the Boston Globe in 2002 exposed the cover-up of a child abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.

The pair first acquired the film rights to tell the story of Globe editor Marty Baron, deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. and members of the paper's "Spotlight" investigative team in 2008. Anonymous Content, a talent management and production company that represented screenwriter Josh Singer signed on, funding the script by Singer and writer-director Tom McCarthy.

Actor Mark Ruffalo, who played investigative reporter Mike Rezendes in the film, was an early advocate for the picture. Yet even after he and other big-name actors, including Michael Keaton and Liev Schreiber, said they would participate, the producers had trouble finding a studio to make it.

"There weren't a lot of buyers for the pedophile-priest-reporter movie," screenwriter Singer said on a panel last week at the Los Angeles Press Club, where "Spotlight" received the club's first Veritas award for best film based on or inspired by a true story.

For a while the film was scheduled to be made by Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks Pictures, but it languished. The screenplay was added to the "Black List," an annual compilation of screenplays selected by studio and production executives as really good but still not in production.

Participant Media, a film company founded by Jeff Skoll, the first president of EBay Inc., stepped in. Beverly Hills, California-based Participant has made it a point of backing socially conscious films such as Al Gore's global warming documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" and "The Help," the tale of race relations in the segregated South of the 1960s.

Skoll's former boss, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, joined in financing the film through his company, First Look Media, according to Participant's King.

Other funds came from the sale of foreign theatrical rights to Entertainment One Ltd., a Canadian film distributor. U.S. distribution rights were sold to Open Road Films, a joint venture founded by the two largest U.S. theater chains, AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. and Regal Entertainment Group, and designed to promote smaller films.

Tax credits for filming in Canada and Massachusetts were the final pieces of the financing, according to King.

The real-life "Spotlight" team reporters said on last week's press club panel that since the movie hit theaters, they have been deluged with e-mails from survivors of abuse and from people with other ideas for investigative pieces.

"One of the results of this movie is the quality of our tip line has gone way up," Rezendes said.


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