By Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes
Oct. 11, 2015
LOS ANGELES — They have been whipsawed by the web and left jobless by the thousands in round after round of layoffs and early retirements.
Their public standing just barely rises above that of lobbyists and telemarketers.
But against all odds, the hottest heroes in Hollywood — at least in this early stage of the Oscar hunt — are a bunch of scruffy, middle-aged newspaper journalists.
Those reporters and editors are featured in “Spotlight,” a forthcoming film that tells how The Boston Globe managed to uncover the sexual abuse of children in the Roman Catholic Church.
It is a movie with an unusual degree of purpose, and more than a whiff of nostalgia for a newspaper business that has been radically transformed since the film’s action took place 14 years ago.
“We wanted to show the power of well-funded, boots-on-the-ground local journalism,” said Tom McCarthy, the film’s director and co-writer.
“Journalism in movies tends to either get slammed or glamorized,” he continued. “We were trying to show process, that this is hard work, that this is draining work and that this is crucial work. It takes institutions to watch institutions.”
Set for release by Open Road Films on Nov. 6, “Spotlight” received standing ovations on the fall festival circuit, where it was favorably compared by critics to “All the President’s Men,” about the reporters who exposed the Watergate scandal. (That film won four Oscars in 1977.) More than a third of the handicappers followed by Gold Derby, an entertainment honors site, recently listed “Spotlight” as their No. 1 prospect at the coming Academy Awards, still a long way off on Feb. 28.
The companies behind “Spotlight” are racing to fan the flames. Participant Media, an activist, or issues-oriented, entertainment company that helped finance the film, is building a campaign that, among other things, will fund a new investigative journalism fellowship. Open Road is setting up screenings at journalism schools and carting the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists involved in The Globe’s church investigation to public events.
Still, “Spotlight” arrives in pursuit not so much of honors as of the journalistic past.
“Along with the resources, there’s also been a loss of will,” said Martin Baron, who ran The Globe during the era depicted in “Spotlight” and is now executive editor of The Washington Post.
Mr. Baron, along with the reporters and editors from the Globe investigative team known as Spotlight, are being swept into the promotional effort, with appearances at festivals and screenings.
“These real-life heroes are a secret weapon for us,” said Tom Ortenberg, the chief executive of Open Road.
Mr. Ortenberg said he initially saw the film’s power as being rooted in its depiction of efforts by the Boston archdiocese to cover up sexual abuse by priests. But in early screenings, the film has also proved to have a surprising ability to provoke a sense of loss among those who recall when reading newspapers was a tactile experience and the journalism they delivered carried a weight and feeling of finality that can be hard to replicate in the nonstop flow of news online.
In the decades since “All the President’s Men,” films about journalism have often been about reportorial missteps or stories gone wrong, like “Shattered Glass,” “Kill the Messenger” and the forthcoming “Truth.”
“Spotlight,” in contrast, is about a triumph, and the film revels in the often mundane ways that the journalists at The Boston Globe accomplished it. As meticulously recreated in “Spotlight,” reporters and editors knock endlessly on doors, drink with sources, pry public records out of the hands of cranky municipal clerks and burn up a year’s worth of corporate funds before delivering a comprehensive report on sexual abuse by priests. The effort won The Globe the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for public service. The plodding realities of team journalism — complaining about the boss, rifling through documents — are a long way from the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere of “All the President’s Men.” But they are enough to make some hearts beat faster.
“Those newspaper trucks fanning out at the end, it was almost like an armored flotilla,” said Roy J. Harris Jr., a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal who traveled from Boston to Washington two weeks ago to catch a prerelease screening of “Spotlight” at the Investigative Film Festival.
Mr. Harris, who tracks journalism prizes in his regularly updated book “Pulitzer’s Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism,” offers one measure of the decline in the kind of long-term reporting portrayed in “Spotlight.” The number of submissions for the public service Pulitzer, he notes, has fallen 58 percent in the last 25 years, to 66 this year from 159 in 1990.
The drop-off came as many newspapers — responding to a precipitous decline in advertising and the challenges of competing online — have ended print editions and cut staff or scaled back on producing in-depth investigative projects, which take up time and money.
According to an annual study by the Pew Research Center Journalism Project, newsroom employment in the United States was 36,700 in 2013, down about a third since 2001. By last year, mobile apps were bringing more views to newspapers than desktop computers were, but the average app visitor was staying for only three minutes.
The specter of the Internet hangs over the journalists in “Spotlight.” In one scene, Liev Schreiber, who plays Mr. Baron, stands in The Globe’s parking lot, talking to a reporter played by Mark Ruffalo. A roadside billboard advertising the technology darling of the moment towers above them: “AOL Anywhere.”
“There was a big, ugly billboard there, so we decided to have a little fun,” Mr. McCarthy said of his decision to cover it with an ad for a now less-than-hot web service. “I wanted to emphasize how analog the research was, the old-fashioned team reporting that delivered these amazing results.”
In one crucial scene, the principals in “Spotlight” spend long minutes pawing through old diocesan directories stored in a dimly lit corner of The Globe’s library. Mr. McCarthy, who spent two and a half years researching the screenplay, also depicted reporters sifting through dried-up newspaper clippings filed away in worn manila envelopes in the newsroom “morgue.”
A filmmaking tenet, “paper is poison,” warns against camera shots that linger on the printed or written word, but Mr. McCarthy said he persuaded the producers that violating that guideline would add crucial authenticity.
Many of the props and set decorations came from The Globe and Mail in Toronto, which sold its longtime headquarters in 2012 to retail and residential developers. Exterior scenes were filmed in Boston, but the cluttered and labyrinthine Globe newsroom (circa 2001) was built in a “derelict Sears building” in Canada, where it was less expensive to film, according to Stephen H. Carter, the production designer for “Spotlight.”
“We even ended up renting their old cubicles,” Mr. Carter said. “We wanted organic and real, slightly dated and mismatched. History.”