Script Notes: 3 Things Wrong with Spotlight

The 2016 Oscars have come and gone. I rejoiced with Leo for his Best Actor award. I sighed in disbelief with Mad Max and its six take-homes. But I was disappointed with Spotlight winning Best Picture. If #womeninfilm had its heyday in 2015, this is the year to ring in #lackofdiversity, and naming Spotlight as Best Picture is about as far from #diversity as anyone could get.

I can see Spotlight winning Best Picture ten or fifteen years ago. It’s a classic, Hollywood, Oscar film. It’s the type of film that is written and produced for awards and recognition. If I were strictly financially speaking, films like this would rarely get made without said award shows. I just today I saw an article from Variety saying the box office has spiked for Spotlight thanks to its Oscar recognition.

So, let’s quickly look at the numbers: the film cost $20 million to make, and is currently standing on $64 million box office revenue. But it took six weeks after it’s initial release to make it to the $20 million milestone. Sales were dwindling to around $736,000 at the end of February, and jumped to almost two million the first week of March. [The Oscars premiered on February 28, 2016.] Without the Oscar show and, dare I say, “spotlight,” I’d be willing to bet that the film would have disappeared into DVD and airline sales.

All of my opinions about the Academy aside, I wanted to take a hard look at the script. It did win Best Original Screenplay by Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, Million Dollar Arm) and Josh Singer (The West Wing, Fifth Estate), but I wanted to see if on the page it came across the same dull, formulaic, and plot-driven way I had seen in the cinema.

* * * * *

If you have not seen the film, beware, because there are spoilers. This blog is to help identify the structure of existing and produced screenplays so we, as writers and filmmakers, can study and observe.

Today, I will discuss the following things “wrong” with Spotlight screenplay:

  • Episodic writing versus a a smooth story
  • Segments included and written for the Academy specifically
  • The lack of punch in the final reveal

To follow along with reading, click here to find the script.

1) Each scene is written episodically. Films are usually put into two categories: plot-driven and character-driven, and this film is clearly plot-driven, and that is relatively consistent throughout the film. It’s when the two categories start to interchange that the story falls short. Do I want to learn more about these relentless reporters? Or, do I want to watch the story of the priests unfold? To do it justice in two hours, there can only be one.

Because the search for “the bigger story” takes over about halfway into the film when the reporters realize this is a lot more than just 13 priests in the Boston area, all individuality in character is lost. They become a blob of “reporters” rather than Sacha, Matt, Mike and Robby. It shifts to a method of plot: find the victims, interview the victims, find the priests, threaten the lawyers, uncover the documents, etc.

The scenes of Sacha (Rachel McAdams) washing dishes with her husband or Mike (Mark Ruffalo) making hot dogs in his bachelor apartment feels empty because we have not spent the time in developing them as people. So, when we see Mike rushing to the courthouse on page 106 and banging the door in frustration because he’s late, are we to feel bad for Mike for being late or bad for the story because that means there is a delay in reporting? What character trait do we, as readers, get from this? He’s a basketcase? He’s dedicated to his job? He’s fighting an uphill battle? Or is this just “last Thursday” writing–just because it happened doesn’t make it vital to the story.


When he gets into the room to get the documents, there are two more layers of obstacles that he must overcome employing the “third times the charm” formula. Formula is dull. If I wanted same old, same old, I could watch an episode of Law and Order.

2) Scenes written specifically for awards. Mark Ruffalo was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Mike Rezendes. But like I mentioned before, this was not a character-driven film, so how can anyone of the ensemble cast members be nominated? (Rachel McAdams was also nominated for her role.) I firmly believe that one specific speech, given by Mike, is the sole reason for his nomination.

(losing it)
Keep our eye on the Herald? They run this and
they get it wrong, the Church will bury it! We gotta do this now!


What? Why are we hesitating! Baron told us to get Law!

Baron told us to get the system. We need the full scope,
that’s the only thing that will put an end to this.

Then let’s take it up to Ben, let him decide!

We’ll take it to Ben when I say it’s time.

It’s time, Robby. They knew and they let it happen! To kids!
This coulda been you, it coulda been me, it could have been any
one of us. We gotta nail these scumbags, show people that
no one can get away with this! Not a priest or a Cardinal or
a fricking Pope!

Yes, this speech is a powerful display of frustration, but it seems oddly out of place in a plot-driven story. And just for argument’s sake, there is no similar display of frustration or award-giving speech for Sacha, so McAdams nomination seems shallow and undeserving.

Imagine the film without this speech. Is there enough substance without this outburst to qualify for Best Original Screenplay, and also, Best Picture? Let me go one step further and say, is there enough substance to win in 2016? Or is the Academy looking for the safe choice of 2000?

(For the record, I would have loved to have seen The Big Short be the upset winner.)

3) The final reveal didn’t give any satisfaction. On page 131, it is finally revealed that Robby ran a story years before about 20 priests in the Boston area molesting children, but he had buried it in the paper, never to be investigated or developed. So, when Robby is asked, “Where were you?” he was right there, in the thick of it, ignorantly aiding the system of burying the same story he is desperately trying to bring into the light. How many lives could he have saved if back in 1993 (instead of 2002), he had helmed a massive investigation?

This is supposed to land hard to the group of reporters and to the audience, but it falls flat. Jacob Krueger of the Write Your Screenplay Podcast did a lovely episode featuring the film. While he loved the film, and I did not, I do agree with several of his points, and he says it much more elegantly that me.

Now if they had found an organic, character based structure for Spotlight, to undergird the procedural elements, I think it would have been an even better movie. Because you do have the raw materials to do it.

If I wanted to build that kind of structure, I would have started by looking at that Michael Keaton character. And they almost do it, at the very end when you find out what his secret is. They almost get there, but they don’t quite nail it. I’m trying not to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen it that’s why I’m trying to be vague, but if you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about.

The reveal of his secret doesn’t land emotionally, it only lands intellectually. You’re like “Oh wow, that wasn’t what I expected.” But it doesn’t land in your heart. And the reason you don’t feel it in your heart is because of the focus on the procedural, rather than the emotional story.  Because it isn’t built into the character’s journey, it isn’t built into the structure. He isn’t making decisions based on that secret. He isn’t making bad decisions based on that secret.

So, it begs the question as to what the purpose was of that reveal? Was it again, a victim of “last Thursday” storytelling? I consider this lazy writing, but the Academy deems this Best Writing.

While I enjoyed reading the script for Spotlight and figuring out why I didn’t like the film, I am disappointed in the realization that Oscar-fodder films are still not changing. If this is what the Academy deems worthy of the gold statue, then writers will continue to write stories in a formulaic and uninspired way. How are the unique and out-of-the-box voices to be heard if we award mediocrity?


2 thoughts on “Script Notes: 3 Things Wrong with Spotlight

  1. The Big Short definitely deserved the win. It was the most complete and compelling story. Room was hard to watch. While some of that needed to be there, a lot of it didn’t. And Spotlight ABSOLUTELY felt like an episode of Law & Order, stretched to two plus hours. I thought Rachel McAdams did a good job in True Detective, and this kind of felt the same to me. I mean, she’s been doing chick flicks for a decade. This was decidedly different, and she did a good job. And it feels like just yesterday she was playing the ditsy, conniving Regina George in Mean Girls.

    Everything you’ve said here is spot on.

    1. I also think The Big Short had one of the hardest jobs of adapting a boring topic into something that a) I could understand and b) I found incredibly entertaining. Who wants to make a movie about the housing market? Generally people who don’t want to make a profit. But this excelled. Shame, really. I do agree about McAdams. She’s trying to break from the Mean Girls/Notebook persona she has created, but it’s almost going too serious, like an Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married or Les Miserables. They are talented, sure, but pigeonholed. I think McAdams needs a starring role that will change our perception of her. True Detective was too much of an ensemble to really pull her out.

      But thank you! I had higher hopes for the movie/script especially with the press, but alas. Maybe next year.

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