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How did Spotlight beat The Revenant to the biggest Oscar win of all?

In classic Hollywood fashion, the 2016 Oscars saved its biggest twist for the final reel. The Revenant had won two of the biggest Oscars of the night – for best actor, and best director – and it looked for all the world that its producers were clearing their throats and unfolding their acceptance speeches for the best picture award. But in came Spotlight, and scooped the lot.

Related: Oscars 2016: DiCaprio wins as Spotlight shocks and Mad Max scorches competition

So where did it go right, and The Revenant go wrong? First and foremost, Spotlight – along with The Big Short – was always in with a chance; a serious rival to The Revenant from the beginning. Since its premiere at the Venice film festival in September 2015, Spotlight has commanded considerable attention and marked its presence by winning a string of significant awards – though mostly for its cast and writing. It didn’t win the key best picture indicator, the Producers Guild Association award, which went to The Big Short; that latter film have sneaked in at the last instead of Spotlight, but in retrospect, in a campaign dominated by political recriminations, the Academy voters responded to a film with a serious message.

Moreover, it pays to remember that Oscar voters don’t think like film critics. Last year, going into the Oscars, Boyhood was the critics’ favourite, the substantial artistic achievement; but it was defeated by Birdman, an entertainment-biz comedy that spoke to the secret feelings of film industry workers about their own thoughts on superhero movies. This time around, Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu could wear the artistic crown with confidence for his visually sumptuous The Revenant; that might have brought the best director award with it (and best cinematographer, for his compatriot Emmanuel Lubezki) but didn’t cut much ice when it came to best picture. (Though last year, of course, voters recognised the directorial and camera skill behind Birdman, and gave both of them the same awards.)

In more specific terms, the direction of the campaigns behind both films – shaped significantly by the awards they were up for – contributed to the outcome. With a strong, big-name lead actor contender, The Revenant focussed the majority of its efforts on Leonardo DiCaprio, and much praise was directed at the actor for really putting the effort in and hitting the trail in a big way. However, it’s clear in retrospect that the talk around it being DiCaprio’s year sucked a lot of the air out of The Revenant’s push for best picture, which voters think about in a different way. They vote for the film they connect most with, essentially; not necessarily the one they admire the most. The repeated theme of The Revenant’s gruelling shoot reinforced the sense that it was a scary, artistic film that wasn’t necessarily committed to connecting with its audience.

Related: Oscars 2016 winners: the full list from Alicia Vikander to Leonardo DiCaprio

Spotlight, on the other hand, didn’t have a best actor contender to worry about, and they spent the majority of their campaign reinforcing the message of the film, persuading influential people to watch it and continuing the efforts of the child abuse protests that energised the film in the first place. It demonstrated that it was a thoroughly connectable film: an issue that Oscar voters may not have personal experience of, but one they feel very strongly about. In a way, it’s reminiscent of 12 Years a Slave v Gravity in 2013: the latter was undoubtedly an amazing technical achievement, but 12 Years had the guts.

Hindsight is a powerful reality alterer, of course, but after Boyhood went down in flames last year, and Carol got nowhere this time, the reality is that five star films don’t necessarily get the Oscar votes. Often – as it proved this time – a good, solid four-star film is just the ticket.

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