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‘Spotlight’: A Win for ‘the Film Everyone Loved’ Caps an Unconventional Season

What's the key to surviving a race as close as this one was?

At the Open Road Films post-Oscars soiree Sunday night, everyone was asking the same question: “How did ‘Spotlight’ do it?” Given that the year’s big winner remained a mystery all the way up until Morgan Freeman’s casual pronouncement at the end of the 3½-hour ceremony — putting a bow on one of the tightest Oscar races in recent memory — it was a fair query following a season that never conformed to parameters.

The three major industry guilds split three different ways for top honors, a first in more than a decade. And with “Spotlight’s” only other victory on the night coming for original screenplay, the film became the first best picture winner since 1952’s “The Greatest Show on Earth” to win just one other Oscar. It was the first year since the preferential ballot was instituted by the Producers Guild and the Academy that their results didn’t match. It was the first year in 65 that a filmmaker won back-to-back director Oscars.

But to return to “Spotlight’s” blueprint for success — with reasons being floated around Palihouse in West Hollywood late into the night — vested interests naturally had the most positive of spins: “Anyone who’s ever been disenfranchised could relate to it,” one exec said. “It was the film everyone loved,” a publicist offered.

There are other interesting (possible) explanations, such as the way voting for films like “Ex Machina” and “Sicario” may have affected the PGA ballot, and how their absence in turn impacted the Oscar ballot; films eliminated in the first two or three rounds begin to influence the race significantly as No. 2 votes on those ballots are redispersed.

There is also the apparent need to start the Oscar journey early, leaving enough road to negotiate the twists and turns of the season. It was fitting that actress winner Brie Larson thanked the Telluride and Toronto film festivals in her speech, as the early fall festival circuit remains fertile ground for planting the seeds of a successful campaign. “Spotlight” — like “Birdman” and “Gravity” — began with a world premiere in Venice followed by a North American bow in Telluride. Best picture winners “12 Years a Slave,” “Argo,” “The Artist,” “The King’s Speech” and “Slumdog Millionaire” also played Telluride, four of them unspooling there for the first time.

Like “The Revenant,” “The Big Short” may have been hamstrung in part by its release date; no film since “Million Dollar Baby” opened in December and won best picture. But while this season’s late arrivals had their moments, “Spotlight” had time to correct its course.

Additionally, as a number of contenders made their best pitches for relevance during phase two, “Spotlight’s” bona fides felt baked into the film. Op-eds from abuse survivors, screenings at the Vatican — it all felt of a piece, organic.

Conversely, while “The Big Short’s” subject matter still resonates (in his adapted screenplay acceptance speech, writer-director Adam McKay called on voters to support leaders who aren’t in the pockets of Wall Street banks, underscoring the film’s immediacy), it may have been hampered by its own unique ethos: It was a scrappy tale of people who got rich on the housing crisis … but at least felt bad about it. And when Paramount’s campaign switched gears to sincerity, promoting a TV spot that called on voters to “make a difference,” it felt like an undercutting of the film’s irreverent satirical identity. It felt like a costume.

Ultimately, the publicist’s response at Palihouse — as simple and self-serving as it was — might be the purest truth. The goal of this balloting system is to achieve the most generally agreeable winner. You can find as many “Revenant” fans as haters, but who can really argue with “Spotlight?”

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