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The Importance of Spotlight’s Win at the Politically Charged Oscars

Smashing Hollywood’s resistance to facing social and political issues at the Academy Awards, Spotlight’s win shows the power of investigative journalism at a time when newspapers are fighting to survive. The show also took on racism in Hollywood, sexual assault, gay and transgender rights, and even climate change. Welcome to the new mindset of old Hollywood

Spotlight team accepts Best Picture Oscar

At the heart of what was arguably the most politically charged Academy Awards show of all time was the surprising best picture Oscar win by Spotlight. The movie is an intense drama, based on the true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered a child molestation scandal within the local Catholic Archdiocese. It documents the painful path the victims faced, as the church, from parishes in Boston to the Vatican, first hid and then dragged its feet on admitting and dealing with this soul crushing issue that wrecked lives.

Even now, the Church has failed to come completely clean on what happened and what needs to be done, as the Spotlight filmmakers and star Mark Ruffalo pointed out at a rally Sunday, just before the awards were presented. This win puts added pressure on the Vatican to do more to address the problem.

"I'm here to stand with the survivors and the victims and the people we've lost from Catholic priest childhood sex abuse," Ruffalo told a crowd of about 20 protesters who rallied in front of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels church in downtown Los Angeles Sunday morning.

It was one of a number of protests nationwide put on by the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. While the church has now addressed some of the pedophilia and other abuses over the years, the group says it still has not released the names of clergy who sexually abused children. The group says the church has continued to allow predators to be moved around and remain hidden from public scrutiny.

Ruffalo was joined at the protest by Spotlight director Tom McCarthy and screenwriter Josh Singer. McCarthy and Singer won the first Oscar (of only two that the movie received) for original screenplay. Spotlight is the first movie since The Greatest Show On Earth in 1952 to win best picture with only one other award.

Spotlight’s filmmakers made the most of their moment. Producer Michael Sugar, accepting the top honor of the night, said: “This film gave a voice to survivors, and this Oscar amplifies that voice which we hope will become a choir that will resonate all the way to the Vatican. Pope Francis, it is time to protect the children and restore the faith.”

Spotlight’s win was the culmination of an odyssey that went against the grain of how and why Hollywood makes movies. Although it had a modest budget of about $15 million, it faced huge obstacles from those who were skeptical that a movie about church sex abuse of children and the inner workings of a newspaper could be a commercial hit. Also, many feared the power of the church, which had a history of suppressing the issue.

As a journalist who learned his craft on big city newspapers, I believe Spotlight is the best newspaper movie of all time. Its importance is amplified because it comes at a time when newspapers are disappearing and newspaper movies seem “old fashioned.” It is an even better newspaper movie than the classic Citizen Kane (1941) about a powerful newspaper owner, or All The Presidents Men (1976), which had to use a thriller plot twist to deliver its message.

Spotlight simply showed how hard reporters have to work, not only to get information, but also to put it out in a way that upsets societies’ most sacred cows.

What Spotlight also did was remind us of the power those once lucrative newspapers had to put resources into investigations. This is no longer done in the digital world where the needs of advertisers are often seen as more important than the ethical needs of editorial operations.

Spotlight was turned down by almost every Hollywood studio, despite having a script that topped The Black List of unproduced screenplays.

The only traditional Hollywood production company that was interested was Stephen Spielberg’s DreamWorks, who at the last minute, decided not to put up half the cost (without making their reasons clear to the filmmakers).

Luckily, Participant Media, the company founded by Jeff Skoll (who got rich as an early employee of eBay), stepped up and agreed to fully finance the film. Skoll founded Participant to make movies and TV shows like An Inconvenient Truth (2006), The Help (2011) and Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) that tell stories, not just for profit, but because they are important to our society.

It was then distributed outside the Hollywood mainstream by Open Road Films, created by AMC Theaters and Regal Entertainment, which bested even well financed Oscar campaigns by 20th Century Fox and other studios.

The bet on Spotlight has paid off brilliantly with domestic grosses approaching $40 million and surprising international ticket sales of about $20 million. It will now get a re-release that will boost its take, and the Oscars will help propel it in home video, beginning immediately with Video On Demand.

DiCaprio accepting the Best Actor Oscar

Spotlight’s surprise win (experts tagged Revenant to win best picture) capped off a night filled with references, discussions and even jokes dealing with serious themes - racism, gay rights, transgender choices, date rape and climate change. This in itself was unusual for an industry event that historically has discouraged political statements.

For example, Marlon Brando protested the portrayal of Native Americans in 1973 by sending Sacheen Littlefeather, an American-Indian woman, to the awards to refuse his Oscar for The Godfather. She was received with more jeers than applause.

When Michael Moore accepted his Oscar for the documentary Bowling for Columbine in 2003, he was nearly booed off the stage.

Those are only a few of many instances. Even at the pre-Oscar lunch for nominees, it has been routine to ask them not to bring politics into their acceptances.

This request has been in line with the history of Hollywood studios to avoid politics and controversy that might hurt ticket sales. It was best stated years ago by producer Sam Goldwyn, who legend has it said, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.”

This year’s Oscars show us that statement is now as meaningless as the sending of a telegram has become.

This politically charged atmosphere surrounded the awards before it began. For the second year in a row, all of the acting nominees were white (although they were from all over the world). Rock was expected to address the controversy and he did. Nearly his entire monologue (and much of the first half of the show) was dedicated to addressing the “crisis.”

Host Chris Rock

Rock made fun of Jada Pinkett Smith, who suggested she would boycott the Oscars after the nominations came out and her husband, Will Smith, wasn’t nominated despite his outstanding work in the little seen Concussion.

"Jada,” joked Rock, “boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna's panties. You weren't invited!"

Rock said the truth is that more than 70 past Oscars have offered up all white acting nominations. He said years ago African-Americans weren’t protesting Oscar exclusion because they were too busy trying to survive and avoid being lynched or raped by white extremists.

"Is Hollywood racist?” asked Rock. “You're damn right Hollywood is racist. But it's not the racism you know. Hollywood is sorority racist. 'We like you Rhonda, but you're not a Kappa.'"

Vice President Joe Biden made an unusual appearance on the awards show to make serious points about a problem faced by many college students and others – sexual assault on young men and women. It is a theme Biden has been discussing since President Obama launched the “It’s On Us” campaign in 2014 in an effort to reframe the discussion of rape and involuntary sexual attacks.

"Tonight, I'm asking you to join millions of Americans, including me, President Obama, the thousands of students I've met on college campuses, and the artists I've met here tonight to take the pledge -- a pledge that says, 'I will intervene in situations when consent has not or cannot be given,'" Biden said. "Let's change the culture.”

The Veep then introduced a stirring performance by Lady Gaga of the Oscar nominated song ‘Til It Happens to You, written by Diane Warren for the movie The Hunting Ground, about sexual assault on college campuses. Click here to watch her emotional performance.

Halfway through her emotional interpretation of the song, Lady Gaga was surrounded by some 50 survivors of sexual abuse who had messages written or tattooed on their arms such as “Survivor” or “Unbreakable.” At the conclusion of the song, they rose and locked hands in triumph as the black tie industry audience stood up and cheered. No booing this time.

The issue of sexual assault was also brought home by two other Oscar wins. Brie Larson, who won best actress, starred in Room, a movie about a woman kidnapped and imprisoned in a room (with her son), repeatedly being sexually assaulted and mistreated.

Larson accepting her Oscar for Best Actress

Backstage, Larson connected with a number of those who performed with Lady Gaga, who cheered her on after her win, screaming, “Give us a hug”.

"Yes, yes, yes!" responded Larson, who hugged every one of them. "I feel like I'm on fire right now!

The Oscar for best supporting actress for Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl also brought forward the issues of intolerance toward transgender people, and the entire LGBT community worldwide.

The call for LGBT equality was also on the mind and tongue of first time Oscar winner Sam Smith, who surprisingly beat out Lady Gaga in the best original song category. The British singer accepted his award, with his co-songwriter Jimmy Napes, for the song Writing’s on the Wall, from the 2015 James Bond movie, Spectre.

“I stand here tonight as a proud gay man,” said Smith, “and I hope we can all stand together as equals one day.”

Smith also mistakenly quoted Sir Ian McKellen, whom he thought said no openly gay man had previously won an Oscar. McKellen meant in the acting categories only, which caused a Twitter fury over the factual error.

Also, there was no denying the power of Leonardo DiCaprio’s words when he accepted his first ever Oscar, for best actor in Revenant. DiCaprio, turning political, used the platform to talk about an issue close to his heart, the environment.

“Climate change is real, “ said DiCaprio, “it is happening right now. It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species, and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating. We need to support leaders around the world who do not speak for the big polluters, but who speak for all of humanity, for the indigenous people of the world, for the billions and billions of underprivileged people out there who would be most affected by this. For our children’s children, and for those people out there whose voices have been drowned out by the politics of greed.”

In a presidential year charged with partisan politics, Hollywood laid out its own platform by honoring movies and people who seem to care as much about their world as they do the bottom line.

Whether or not this will inspire others, or help get other movies made that address social issues, is yet to be seen. But Phil Saviano, a victim of clergy abuse who has spoken out on behalf of Spotlight made clear the importance of this particular Oscar win shortly after the show ended.

"It's one thing to have [the story] out in the news;” said Saviano, “it's another to have it out in Hollywood.”

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