The newspaper drama Spotlight pulled off a surprise win over frontier saga The Revenant for best picture honours at the Academy Awards. The bigger plot twist, though, may be that the film ever made it into theatres 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 of retelling the cover-up of a paedophilia scandal in the Catholic church.

"It wasn't ever ... 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 superhero film leading the US box office. "That's their business model."


A critically acclaimed film like Spotlight, which had already won several honours before its Oscar victory, can produce returns for its investors. The movie, which cost US$20 million ($30.3 million) to make, has taken in US$61.8 million worldwide since its release in November, according to Box Office Mojo.

Last year's winner Birdman cost US$18 million to make and ended up with US$103 million in box office returns. Movie budgets don't include expenses for marketing.

But film-makers churn out dozens of independent films each year, and not every one can win the Oscar.

The best-picture win for Spotlight, along with the Oscar Singer and McCarthy won 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 bulk of their sales.

Novice producers Blye Pagon Faust and Nicole Rocklin first acquired the film rights to tell the 2002 story of Boston Globe editor Marty Baron, deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee jnr and members of the paper's investigative team in 2008. 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, came aboard, the producers had trouble finding a studio to make it.

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