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How Did Independent Films Fare at the 2016 Oscars?

How Did Independent Films Fare at the 2016 Oscars?

READ MORE: Full List of All 2016 Oscar Winners

And, with the final round of applause and one last shot of a beaming Leonardo DiCaprio, awards season has come to a close. A wild ride from start to finish, punctuated by early contenders (“Steve Jobs,” anyone?), unexpected dark horses (looking at you, “Ex Machina”) and all sorts of insane stories (see: “The Revenant”), the 2015-2016 season is one that will be hard to shake. But while the season was marked by its unpredictability, one trend did emerge early on and stick around to see it through: Independent films made outside the studio system that got their big awards push care of smaller, boutique outfits that seemed bent on giving them not just a glitzy campaign, but ones crafted with real affection for the final product.

From major wins for “Spotlight” to genuine shocks for critical favorites like “Ex Machina,” indie film had a big, big night on Oscar Sunday. Here are some of the highlights.


There’s simply no bigger indie success story than that of last night’s best picture winner, the Tom McCarthy-directed “Spotlight.” The Black Listed screenplay from McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer was originally partially financed and supported by Participant Media, who then brought in Open Road Films (who have previously had some near-misses with awards possibles, most recently with “Nightcrawler”) to fill the financing gap. The indie outfit closed the financing gap, and the film — which boasts a lot of star power both in front of and behind the camera — was made for the slim price of $20 million. It’s the first best picture win for the Open Road team, but if this deep dive that our own Anne Thompson did with CEO Tom Ortenberg last year is to be believed, it will likely not be the last.

“The Revenant”

Although “The Revenant,” which picked up major wins for best actor, best director and best cinematography, was distributed by 20th Century Fox (who also gave it a massive awards push that paid out both in terms of hardware and box office returns), the film’s road to the big screen was very much indie-infused. Originally set to be produced by Akiva Goldsman in the early aughts, the film cycled through directors and stars (and producers!) before finally ending up with its final lineup in 2014. The film was funded by cabal of companies, including New Regency, RatPac-Dune Entertainment and the China-based Guangdong Alpha Animation and Culture Company. Fox reportedly declined to fork over additional funds when they were asked for, and as such, the film does not include a Fox production credit, and producers like Arnon Milchan and Steve Golin have been hailed as its true financial forces. 


It’s only fitting that lauded indie it girl Brie Larson would win her first best actress Oscar for an truly indie film. Financed by a collective of various outfits, including funds from both Ireland and Canada, the film was made outside the studio system for about $13 million. A24 picked up the rights to the feature before it even started shooting, and the boutique distributor seemed bent on pushing the Lenny Abrahamson-directed feature, based on Emma Donoghue’s bestselling novel of the same name for a big awards campaign. That paid off, and Larson collected a series of wins throughout the season, ultimately ending up on the Oscars red carpet as the odd-on winner.

“The Danish Girl”

Best supporting actress winner Alicia Vikander had a huge year in film, thanks to not only her work in the Tom Hooper feature, but also her star turns in “Ex Machina,” “Testament of Youth” and even the derided “Seventh Son” (she was a lone bright spot in the beleaguered film). Like winner “The Revenant” and nominee “Carol,” “The Danish Girl” had a long, winding road to the big screen, thanks to years of development, a number of cast changes and even some directorial switcheroos. When the film was finally made in 2015, it was financed by a number of producers, including Hooper himself, Pretty Pictures, Harrison Productions and Working Title, all for an estimated $15 million budget. Released domestically by Focus Features, it’s yet another big Oscar winner from an smaller distributor made on an ever-rare mid-sized budget.


Although Asif Kapadia’s best documentary winner, the heart-stopping “Amy,” was originally shepherded to the big screen by Universal Music, the film was released by boutique indie outfit A24, which picked the film as its first documentary offering (and didn’t that work out nicely?).

“Ex Machina”

Another big success for A24 on Oscar night? Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina,” which pulled off a huge surprise win for best special effects, beating out such heavyweights as “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “The Martian” and “The Revenant.” Although the film was released in the UK by Universal, who had the option to release it in the U.S. through their Focus Features, the studio balked, allowing A24 to sweep in to grab the domestic rights to the film, which went on to become a critical and commercial hit and, oh yeah, an Oscar winner to boot.

“Son of Saul”

The Cannes Grand Prix-winning feature has been a critical darling for months now, but its back-to-back best foreign language film wins at both the Indie Spirits and the Oscars seemed to genuinely shock director and co-writer Laszlo Nemes. Perhaps he’s still reeling from its long road to the big screen? Despite dedicating years of his life to making the feature, Nemes struggled to find financiers for his vision, and many reportedly balked at the film’s tough subject matter and unique approach to portraying the Holocaust. The film was eventually paid for by the Hungarian National Film Fund, and was picked up for domestic release by Sony Pictures Classics, who set it out on a very successful festival tour, before grabbing the gold.

“The Hateful Eight”

Although the Quentin Tarantino Western, made by indie mainstay The Weinstein Company, didn’t pull out a best supporting actress win for star Jennifer Jason Leigh, it did propel beloved composer Ennio Morricone to his very first Oscar win. Morricone had previously been nominated five other times (first starting back in 1979, with his score for “Days of Heaven”) and picked up an Honorary Oscar in 2007.


It should come as little surprise that two of the three winning shorts — including live action and animation — were made independently, as few studios beyond Pixar actively participate in the creation and production of shorts. “Stutterer,” the live action winner, was the only Irish film to take home an Oscar, despite a field crowded with other nominees from the emerald isle. Over on the animated side, “Bear Story” beat out the Pixar-made “Sanjay’s Super Team” to become the first ever Chilean winner at the awards show. 

And, although the night’s biggest winner (in terms of both quantity of awards and sheer “wow” factor), George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” was made within the studio system, the six-time Oscar winner did slog through development hell for nearly two decades before it finally came together under the umbrella of Warner Bros. Although the film was not independently made, it was certainly independently minded. 

READ MORE: The Best Things Winners Leonardo DiCaprio, Brie Larson and More Said Backstage at the 2016 Academy Awards

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