Until Jeff Nichols was approached to direct "Loving," he hadn't actually heard of the 1967 precedent-setting case of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple who took their fight to legally marry in Virginia to the Supreme Court.
"I was shocked," he admits. "I'm a middle-class white kid born in 1978, and I thought I knew about this sort of thing – but I was blissfully ignorant. And as I unraveled this particular sweater, it seemed these people had been neglected by history. That felt like a shame."
In putting the story of the Lovings on the big screen, Nichols joins a passel of "cause"-based movies starting to fill theaters; coming soon or already available are films about drone warfare ("Eye in the Sky"), domestic terrorists ("American Pastoral"), pacifism in wartime ("Hacksaw Ridge") and the corrupt lobbying system ("Miss Sloane"), to name just a few.
What is it about the glut of cause films that routinely emerge (or resurface) in time for awards season? On their own, cause films have their finger on audience emotions, by presenting a gut-wrenching moral crisis and then at least a partial resolution filled with hope and good feelings. But it's not just about what audiences want once the awards season engines get fired up – cause films are catnip to academy voters.
Think about it: Last year "Spotlight" — about child abuse within the Catholic Church — was named best picture, competing alongside movies like "The Big Short," about Wall Street malfeasance. Recent other best picture nominees have included the Iraq war film "American Sniper," the civil rights-themed "Selma," the AIDS film "Dallas Buyers Club," and 2014’s winner, "12 Years a Slave."
"Films about real things ultimately have traction," says "Hacksaw" screenwriter Andrew Knight. "You can only watch a CGI image fighting another CGI image for so long. To actually grab hold of something visceral and cathartic that connects in a real way with a person will always have more meaning. Those are the ones that resonate best with audiences, and hopefully with awards."
Timeliness is important of course. "It does seem to me that academy voters do plump for things that are relevant in contemporary America," says "Miss Sloane" screenwriter Jonathan Perera. "The issues need to be front and center and hot-button topics. They need to capture the spirit of the times."
Putting a film directly into contemporary times isn't crucial; movies like "Pastoral," "Hacksaw" and "Loving" use the middle of last century to illuminate moral quandaries and issues of today.
"The topic must be pertinent," says "Pastoral" screenwriter John Romano, whose film takes place in the turbulent 1960s but has direct resonance with modern issues. "With a homegrown terrorist story, we're joining an intelligent conversation about issues that matter. This is not a political statement or a mea culpa – it just explores a hot-button issue."
Still, don't be fooled: such films may have good intentions but they're also part of marketing campaigns. "I've given Focus Features a story that makes sense in a certain quadrant, and makes sense to release now," says Nichols. "That's a big part of the business of this particular film and this model – and to deny that would be kind of silly."
Yet having a film that takes time to explore controversial issues in a nuanced, measured way can come as a relief after the tent-pole excesses of the summer, and producers hope the buzz created by such discussions will simultaneously help promote their films.
"If there's a moral debate about something that's wrong in society, you can engage in a much bigger dialogue," says "Eye" producer Ged Doherty. "Audiences on social media can take the debate on many twists and turns. A regular romantic comedy makes it harder to get that kind of attention."
Ultimately, though, Nichols thinks that audiences and voters respond to the topics of cause films for one reason: They make us feel good.
"We see the best part of ourselves in these films, what humanity can be and what is possible," he says. "At the heart of good movies there's always empathy and that's what takes a movie from being just entertainment to possibly becoming an agent for change – when we see the better angels of ourselves in it."
Not that effecting change is always on the minds of writers: "I didn't write [‘Miss Sloane’] with the intent of changing anyone's mind on anything," says Perera. "I want this to be entertaining and a character study. Anyway, [viewers are] equally as likely to change their mind as to solidify their opinion by watching it."
Nor does "Hacksaw's" Knight think there's any likelihood his film will alter anyone's thinking about pacifism, or an individual's standing up for his beliefs amid the chaos of war. At least not long term.
"There's a great line in a Paul Simon song: 'After changes upon changes we are more or less the same,'" he says. "I'd like to think films change hearts and minds, but ultimately … not. For a short time they can imbue people with something else, at least a good film will. Great films have moved and shaped the way I think but, no. You'd love to think as a writer your work could change the world, but I can't even change my own children's minds."