Oscar ‘Spotlight’ falls on a former UW-Madison producer

While Madison has lately been gripped by basketball fever, one Badger has already won a competition that rivals any NCAA tournament. Former University of Wisconsin-Madison student Nicole Rocklin received an Oscar for producing Spotlight, named the best picture of 2015 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Rocklin graduated with honors from UW-Madison in 2001. “I couldn’t have had a better college experience than I did in Madison,” she says. “I love the university.”

From left to right, “Spotlight” producers Michael Sugar, Blye Pagon Faust, Nicole Rocklin and Steve Golin. Photo: Nicole Rocklin
From left to right, “Spotlight” producers Michael Sugar, Blye Pagon Faust, Nicole Rocklin and Steve Golin. Photo: Nicole Rocklin

Rocklin wasn’t a graduate of either the departments of communication arts, or theater and drama. Hoping to enter law school, she double-majored in history and Afro-American studies.

“I don’t think film school is necessary if you want to produce,” she says. “My point of view is that if you have a more worldly viewpoint, you actually bring a better sense of skills and a better perspective to the film business.”

After graduating, she applied to law school, worked for some entertainment attorneys, thought of entering the music industry, and then worked for high-powered producer Jerry Bruckheimer in her native Los Angeles. His projects have included The Amazing Race and CSI television series, and movies such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop.

She’d already pulled back her law school application. After a friend urged Rocklin to become a producer herself, she did. Not that it happened just like that, she clarifies. It hasn’t been easy, and producing a movie draws on skills that most would not consider glamorous.

“I could sell tires,” she explains. “I’m in the business of selling. A lot of your job in making a movie is selling, in addition to fostering great relationships and being able to problem-solve and all those things.”

There are creative aspects, of course, but, “When you think about a movie, you’re selling your project to studios, you’re selling your project to actors that you want to be in it, you’re selling your project to filmmakers and writers you want to come on board,” she says. And once the movie is done, “You’re selling in terms of marketing your movie.”

Getting Spotlight to the screen with her business partner and co-producer, Blye Pagon Faust, took seven years. Michael Sugar and Steve Golin joined the two as co-producers.

“Seven years in my business isn’t that long,” says Rocklin.

But film projects don’t make money while they’re being developed, nor do movies earn income during shooting or post-production. “It’s exciting, a lot of work, and there are a lot of moments when you don’t know how you’ll keep things together,” she says. “It’s not the easiest.”

Despite receiving six Oscar nominations and winning best picture and best original screenplay awards, the fact that Spotlight even got made was a miracle, according to Rocklin. The film tells the story of how journalists at The Boston Globe uncovered sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. It stars Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Liev Schreiber.

“It’s not a comic book movie or a thriller,” she says. “It’s not an overtly commercial movie. So to get a movie like this put together and do it well and successfully, and have it be financially successful, is not an easy task.”

There are rewards, of course. Yes, getting an Oscar is nice, but only a Packer fan would be as thrilled to meet quarterback Aaron Rodgers at the Academy Awards that same night.

Rocklin introduced herself and shared that her father, a big fan, had recently passed away. Seeing Rodgers, she told him, made her feel that he was present.

“I’m rooting for you,” said Rodgers.

And so life goes on for Rocklin. “We have a pretty nice slate of projects, but I’m not sure what’s next,” she says. “I need to come back to Madison for a football game, at the very least. And I need to go back and now hit up a Packers game, too.”

Oh, and her Oscar?

“There are moments when it’s been on my desk,” she says. “There are other moments when it’s sitting on my dresser. It’s always sitting far enough away from my one-and-a-half year old that he can’t have it fall on him or he can’t damage it.”