For many moviegoers, the biggest criticism that comes with awards season is that not enough big-budget, blockbuster films are nominated for anything (i.e. The Dark Knight), yet a big lament of studios is that no one goes to see their tiny, prestigious dramas (i.e. Whiplash), even when they do win awards. So as a result, studios turn back to the money-makers audiences crave, rejecting much of the intelligent, adult-driven cinema that might win them awards, but not tickets. But are these mid-budget movies meant for the over-18 demographic totally gone? Clearly, no; movies that fit that label, like Tom McCarthy's Spotlight , still exist. But where does a movie like Spotlight fit in today's movie environment?
The film may be a hit with critics, but it's not exactly the stuff audiences tend to crave. Spotlight tells the story of the Boston Globe team who, in 2001, uncovered the widespread and pervasive Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal. Starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci, and John Slattery, it's a truly ensemble work that utilizes the strengths of its cast. Set 14 years ago, its plot hinges on an outdated form of journalism, relying, like its equally riveting predecessor All the President’s Men, on the importance of printed newspapers and library bookshelves. But Spotlight’s meta commentary goes beyond journalism. The movie tells its engaging story through not only a dying style of journalism but also through a dying style of film.
In an era when comic book adaptations have taken hold, sequels are unending, and studios cater exclusively to U.S. teenagers and international audiences who find action more appealing, there’s little room for the medium budget, adult drama these days. “Pretty soon, they won’t make movies like Spotlight anymore, and that will be a shame,” the Washington City Paper remarked in its review of the film. It's understandable why; with the highest grossing films of the year featuring dinosaurs, Avengers, car chases and cartoon creatures, an intimate film featuring superpower-less, office-set adults working to achieve a goal won't make much of a mark on the box office, even if it is based on one of the most important true stories in our recent history.
At a DGA screening of the film this week, Spotlight’s director Tom McCarthy lamented the fact that the mid-budget drama is getting harder and harder to produce. “A lot of people shied away from [making this movie]... the marketplace is that hard, it’s that tight right now,” he said. “We had all of these amazing players and the movie still almost fell apart four times. Even with this cast... it just says a lot about where we are right now with these kinds of movies.”
But could awards prestige save a dying breed? The acclaim that Spotlight has received is impressive, but as awards don't always translate to box office, it's unknown if its success will lead to more movies like it being made down the line. Last year, films like Birdman and Boyhood received major acclaim, but were seen by few and performed poorly at the box office. The same thing may happen again this year; Spotlight has already taken home Best Feature, Best Screenplay, and Best Ensemble Performance at the Gotham Independent Film Awards, which many see as a precursor to the Oscar nominations. (Last year’s winner, Birdman, went on to win Best Picture.) The cast is also practically guaranteed the SAG award for Best Ensemble, and star Michael Keaton was recently awarded Best Actor from the New York Film Critic’s Circle, which might shove him back into the Oscar race after losing to Eddie Redmayne last year.
Yet even if Spotlight doesn't make it to many audiences, its few peers in the mid-budget adult drama genre might. Recently, Sylvester Stallone was awarded Best Supporting Actor from the National Board of Review for his returning performance as Rocky Balboa in Creed , a medium-sized drama that adults are flocking to see in droves. With a reported $35 million budget, Creed not only made its money back over its opening weekend, but the growing accolades it's receiving might take a popular, feel-good film straight from the multiplex to the awards podium. Earlier in the season, the Tom Hanks drama Bridge of Spies had a respectable box office opening along with critical acclaim, which can only help it going forward.
So if adult-oriented films with mid-range budgets keep winning come awards season, does that mean studios will be braver in their production choices? It’s unlikely, but not impossible. With the fight to get butts in the seats more difficult than ever, it will still always be a fight to get a drama like Spotlight made. But when the payoff is an excellent film that wins honors it deserves, that’s something we can all root for.
Images: Open Road Films (3)