Sunday night’s Academy Awards provided a ringing endorsement for Hollywood’s independent companies.
Major Oscars went to a pair of small and relatively new indie distributors — Open Road, which released best picture and original screenplay winner “Spotlight,” and A24, which distributed “Room,” which brought a best actress prize for star Brie Larson; documentary winner “Amy”; and special effects winner “Ex-Machina.”
Independent production houses also saw Oscar gold: Participant Media and Anonymous Content financed “Spotlight” while New Regency bankrolled “The Revenant,” which scored a first best actor win for Leonardo DiCaprio, best director for Alejandro Inarritu and best cinematography for Emmanuel Lubezki .
“Seeing ‘Spotlight’ win feels truly awesome,” said Open Road CEO Tom Ortenberg. “Our whole team ran a great campaign — but we also really did have the best picture.”
Ortenberg, who took the post shortly after theater chains AMC and Regal founded the company in 2011, said the Oscar underscores his company’s commitment to quality.
“I don’t think we need validation for what we’re doing,” he noted. “I think this was more of an affirmation of what we’ve been doing with films like ‘The Grey,’ ‘Chef’ and ‘Nightcrawler.'” Ortenberg pointed to the distributor’s upcoming releases “Bleed for This” and “Snowden” with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley as possible awards contenders in 2017.
Anonymous Content’s Michael Sugar, one of the four winning producers on “Spotlight,” told Variety that the members of the Academy are not predisposed to support indies over studio films — which makes the win all the sweeter.
“I think the Academy members vote with their hearts,” Sugar added. “What’s great about this is that sometimes the indies don’t have the same kind of resources as the studios so it’s really meaningful to get this kind of recognition.”
Participant CEO David Linde agreed that Spotlight,” which details the Boston Globe’s investigation into pedophile priests, was significant in several ways.
“It’s a validation for original storytelling and a validation that audiences are thirsting for material that feels impactful,” Linde said. “People want to invest in something that makes a substantive positive contribution.”
Participant was also a backer of Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies,” which scored a supporting actor win for Mark Rylance. The 12-year-old company, backed by Jeff Skoll, has won a total of 11 Oscars over the years with “Spotlight” as its first best picture winner.
For New Regency, “The Revenant” represented a big bet as the production budget ballooned to $135 million, partly due to moving from the Rockies to South America to shoot in the snow. The Western epic, which has topped $400 million worldwide, follows back-to-back best picture wins for the shingle with “12 Years a Slave” and “Birdman.”
Fox, which owns 20% of New Regency, released “The Revenant” and “Birdman” while “12 Years a Slave” was distributed through its specialty label Fox Searchlight.
“I think what we do is a great complement to the studio business,” Regency CEO Brad Weston told Variety. “We try to fit into Fox by making riskier films that may not seem that obvious when studios are focused on tentpoles.”
Four-year-old A24, based in New York, racked up its first Oscars with the trophies for “Room,” “Amy” and “Ex Machina,” as well as nominations for best picture, adapted screenplay and director for “Room.”
“It was incredibly rewarding to have all three of these very different films recognized in such a big way,” said marketing exec Nicolette Aizenberg. “Alex, Asif, and Lenny all made incredible movies.”
All three films were backed by the U.K.’s Film4.
Sue Bruce-Smith, head of distribution and brand strategy for Film4, said that the wins will serve as inspiration to her and her team to pursue other great projects.
“It encourages us to continue in our search and support for new and distinctive voices which clearly resonate so strongly with audiences not just here in the U.K., but internationally,” she said.