‘Moonlight’ Postmortem: How To Win Best Picture in 5 (Not So) Easy Steps

The factors that led to the surprise win included fresh Academy membership, brilliant strategy from A24, and yes, Donald Trump.
Mahershala Ali Oscars
Mahershala Ali at the Oscars.
David Fisher/REX/Shutterstock

Let’s talk about the biggest news of an unforgettable Oscar night — and it’s got nothing to do with the Twitter-happy accountant who apparently gave Warren Beatty the wrong envelope. Here’s the real story: A $1.5 million gay, African-American, coming-of-age movie won Best Picture.

It’s the first gay movie to grab the big prize, one that was denied “Brokeback Mountain” a decade ago. It’s the first Best Picture winner with an all-black cast. It also showed that when a small-scale indie is involved, guild wins (“La La Land” won the PGA,”Hidden Figures” took SAG Ensemble) are no longer reliable Oscar predictors.

And never underestimate the potential of the underdog to come from behind (See: “12 Years a Slave,” “Spotlight,” “Argo”). This year’s passion vote was split among three movies: “La La Land,” “Moonlight,” and “Manchester By the Sea.”

Here’s how everything went right for “Moonlight.”

Adele Romanski, Jeremy Kleiner and Barry Jenkins - Best Picture - 'Moonlight'89th Annual Academy Awards, Press Room, Los Angeles, USA - 26 Feb 2017
Adele Romanski, Jeremy Kleiner and Barry JenkinsDavid Fisher/REX/Shutterstock

1. The filmmakers.

Producer Adele Romanski got her college chum writer-director Barry Jenkins off his couch, helping him choose the right material, Tarell Alvin McRaney’s play, to adapt for Jenkins’ follow-up to his debut, 2008’s “Medicine for Melancholy.” She steered the ship — along with Plan B’s Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner, who are starting to rival Scott Rudin (7 Best Picture nominations, one win for “No Country for Old Men”) for tasteful erudition.

Brad Pitt’s Plan B can now claim four Oscar-winning movies in a row: “Moonlight,” “The Big Short,” “12 Years a Slave,” and “Selma.” Gardner also produced “Tree of Life,” and is the only woman to win two Best-Picture Oscars, for “Moonlight” and “12 Years a Slave.” (If “Hidden Figures” had won, “Shakespeare in Love” producer Donna Gigliotti, who has four Best Picture nominations, would have been the other.)

In this case, Plan B had the sense to take the indie-scale project not to a studio but to rising indie A24. Jenkins made the movie in 21 days for $1.5 million. Factoring in inflation, that’s the lowest-budget movie to ever win Best Picture.

Jenkins figured out a brilliant way to engage audiences with a naturalistic and accessible three-part story of how a sensitive child becomes a bullied adolescent and a conflicted man, played by three unknown actors. By the time we encounter him as a well-muscled drug dealer, we can see inside him. Point is, we had neither seen this movie, nor been enabled to empathize with a character quite like Chiron before.

Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland in "Moonlight"
“Moonlight”Photo by David Bornfriend, courtesy of A24

2. The distributor.

A24 jumped in to finance its first production, and marketed and released the film impeccably, from its fall launch at Telluride and Toronto, where the tsunami of critics raves began. While established studio players like Focus Features aim their sights at the loyal theatergoers who tend to be older, getting younger cinephiles inside a theater is harder than ever. Nevertheless, A24 seems to have figured out a way. They acquire movies like excoriated Cannes entry “The Sea of Trees” to go out via their deal with DirectTV and iTunes, market them via less-costly social media, and pick up others that pop with strong reviews and a unique director’s stamp.

But they also know how to turn their arthouse hits into Academy Award contenders. Last year, three films wound up with Oscars: Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina,” Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room,” starring Best Actress Brie Larson, and Asif Kapadi’s doc “Amy.”

They managed to turn “Moonlight” into an improbable hit in limited release with a jaw-dropping opening of $100,000 per screen; now at $22 million domestic, it hits 1,500 screens this weekend on week 20 to maximize its Oscar wins.

It’s already at #1 on iTunes. It’s been available on multi-platforms for two weeks leading into the Oscars, and Tuesday it went to On Demand and DVD — and it will still gross over $1 million at New York’s Angelika Cinemas. Overseas, the movie is just opening to strong numbers in many territories like UK, France, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and more.

While studio Lionsgate collected eight Oscars — six for retro musical “La La Land” and two for Mel Gibson war movie “Hacksaw Ridge” — and Disney nabbed four (animated “Zootopia” and Pixar’s “Piper,” “The Jungle Book,” and ESPN documentary “OJ: Made in America”), right behind them was A24 with three, for the second year in a row.

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