"Spotlight" spotlight: As the awards season heats up, the spotlight is on films that resonate with audiences as well as critics.

Academy members like to see that moviegoers are as enthusiastic about best picture contenders as the critics are. When they cast their Oscar votes, they have one eye on the boxoffice so they don't embarrass themselves by picking a best picture that moviegoers didn't turn out to see.

Although it's still early in the awards season, we've already seen fortunes diminish for several high profile critics' darlings that performed well at early fall film festivals, but found themselves struggling at the boxoffice when they finally hit theatres.

As new contenders arrive and are applauded by the media, they, too, must measure up at the boxoffice in order to get into the race in a serious way.

This weekend sees the process beginning for one of this year's most anticipated likely best picture contenders -- the R rated dramatic thriller "Spotlight"from Open Road Films, Participant Media and First Look.

          "Spotlight" is directed by Tom McCarthy, who directed "The Station Agent" and was an original screenplay Oscar nominee for "Up."McCarthy co-wrote "Spotlight" with Josh Singer, who wrote the 2013 dramatic thriller "The Fifth Estate" about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

          "Spotlight"stars Oscar nominees Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci and Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber and John Slattery.

          The film tells the true story of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe investigation that caused a crisis in the Catholic Church. After a year-long probe into allegations of sexual abuse of children within the Catholic Church in Boston, the newspaper's Spotlightreporting team exposed a decades-long cover-up at the city's highest levels.

          "Spotlight" kicked off last weekend at five theatres in New York, Los Angeles and Boston (where the movie takes place) with a very strong $302,276, averaging $60,455 per screen, according to boxoffice tracker Rentrak.

          While that's an outstanding start in sophisticated exclusive runs, fingers will remain crossed untilafter it expands Nov. 13 and goes wide Nov. 20. If "Spotlight" can generate solid ticket sales in broad release, that will boost its Oscar prospects considerably.

          Boxoffice success is the last element the film needs to maintainits front runner status in the Oscar race. It's already a film festival driven hit afterworld premiering (out of competition) at Venice, screening at Telluride and then playing at Toronto.

          At Toronto,it received tremendous audience enthusiasm, according to a Sept. 15 Los Angeles Times report: "Five days into the Toronto festival, 'Spotlight' stands as the only movie to generate applause both during the film and afterward, when the credits roll." The article's headlines hammered home the point: "Scandal film's buzz builds" and "'Spotlight' gets cheers."

          Not surprisingly, glowing reviews of "Spotlight"surfaced as it began its theatrical release. More are likely to follow as the film expands into theatres across the country.

          L.A. Times critic Kenneth Turan praised it as being, "mightily impressive not only because of the importance of the story it tells, but also because of how much effort and skill went into bringing it to the screen in the best possible way."

          A.O. Scott in his N.Y. Times review called it, "a gripping detective story and a superlative newsroom drama, a solid procedural that tries to confront evil without sensationalism....Mr. McCarthy is a solid craftsman. The actors are disciplined and serious, forgoing the table-pounding and speechifying that might more readily win them prizes from their peers."

          Nonetheless, some of the film's ensemble cast members are being talked about as potential supporting actor nominees. In particular, Michael Keaton, who plays Spotlight team supervising editor Walter Robinson, and Mark Ruffalo, who plays reporter Mike Rezendes, are generating Oscar buzzes.

          Keaton has the advantage of having lost in last year's best actor race for his critically acclaimed performance in "Birdman,"which was his first Oscar nomination in a career stretching back to 1975. Although many Hollywood handicappers thought Keaton would prevail, the Oscar went to Eddie Redmayne for playing Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything."Academy voters could turn around now and reward Keaton for "Spotlight."

          Redmayne, by the way, is likely to be back in the best actor race this year for Focus Features and Working Title Films' upcoming biographical drama "The Danish Girl," from Tom Hooper, a best directing Oscar winner for "The Kings Speech."

          Ruffalo is a two-time supporting actor Oscar nominee – in 2011 for "The Kids Are All Right" and in 2015 for "Foxcatcher."Academy members could decide to put him back in the Oscar spotlight for "Spotlight."

          McCarthy, who's a prime contender for a best directing nomination, explainswhy he wanted to make the film: "I'm extremely concerned with how little high-end investigative journalism is out there right now compared to what we had 15 years ago. I saw this movie as an opportunity to show by example: Here is the kind of impact that can happen when you have well-funded journalism done by experienced professionals. I mean, what could be more important than the fate of our children?"

          It's also a story that resonated with him personally. "I was raised Catholic so I have great understanding, admiration and respect for the institution," he says. "This story is not about Church bashing. It's about asking, 'How does something like this happen?' The Church performed, and in some cases continues to perform, acts of institutional evil not only as an abuser of kids but also through the cover-up of abuse. How could this abuse go on for decades without people standing up and saying something?"

          Screenwriters Singer and McCarthy spent months interviewing  journalists, victims and others who were part of the story.

          "We went up to Boston two or three times, we did multiple interviews with each of the reporters involved in the story and I thought we were done," Singer recalls. "But verisimilitude was always key for Tom. He kept asking, 'What about the journalists who worked on (other aspects of the story)? What about the lawyers?' He wanted to understand this story from every angle.

          'I've always loved research, so this was music to my ears. And, well, big surprise, it was when we reached out beyond our core group that we stumbled upon some of the most unexpected details in this story. And these are the pieces that I think really make the story feel grounded and real."

          Singer hadn't actually read much in the past about the scandal: "I remember during my early days working (as a writer) on 'The West Wing,' I never wanted to read about it in the newspapers because the idea of clergy sex abuse was so upsetting to me on so many levels. What really drew me to 'Spotlight'was that it's a story about the reporters who uncovered this abuse. For me, that was the way in. By following these reporters, the audience gets to understand the problem in a way that's accessible."

          With its plot revolving around newspaper heroes, "Spotlight"recalls the 1976 drama "All The President’s Men" about the Watergate scandal. Directed by Alan J. Pakula ("Klute"), it starred Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

          "Men" was critically acclaimed and was a solid boxoffice hit. Its $70.6 million domestic theatrical cume was big money at the time. Academy members rewarded it with eight noms, including best picture and directing. It took home four Oscars –adapted screenplay, sound, art direction-set decoration and supporting actor for Jason Robards' portrayal of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.

          Bradlee's real life son, Ben BradleeJr., was the Boston Globe assistant managing editor overseeing the Spotlight team's investigation. He's played in the film by John Slattery, who's best known for starring on "Mad Men"as Roger Sterling.

          Bottom line:Newspapers have suffered terribly in recent years from Internet competition. As newspaper circulations dropped sharply,advertisers have shifted more money from print to digital media.

          "With budgets slashed the way they have been, who is going to have the resources and the manpower to take on stories like these?" asks Nicole Rocklin, a producer of "Spotlight."

          "If these reporters hadn't spent years of their lives on this, would it ever have come out? So it's actually quite scary that investigative teams like this have disappeared from newsrooms around the country."

          McCarthy echoes that view: "'Spotlight' serves as a shining example of what professional, top-flight journalists can accomplish. I want to ring the bell about how essential this kind of journalism is, because to me, these reporters are straight-up heroes."

          If Academy members have those sentiments in mind when they start voting for nominations in late December, "Spotlight"is likely to shine.