By Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Fox Searchlight, the arthouse studio of 21st Century Fox Inc, won the film industry's most prestigious prize on Sunday, taking the best picture Oscar for fantasy romance "The Shape of Water."
It was a celebratory moment at an uncertain time for the studio, one of several Fox film and television businesses in the process of being sold to Walt Disney Co.
Fox Searchlight has now collected the Academy Award for best picture a total of four times since 2009 winner "Slumdog Millionaire," and it has built a reputation for taking chances on unusual movies that appeal to independent film fans.
"The place I like to live the most is Fox Searchlight," "Shape of Water" director Guillermo del Toro said as he accepted the best director award.
Del Toro said studio executives heard his pitch about a fairy tale involving an amphibian god and a mute woman, told in the style of a thriller. Their response? They felt it was "a sure bet," he said.
Fox Searchlight collected six awards overall, including best actress and supporting actor for dark comedy "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."
At Disney, the film studio focuses on blockbuster franchises such as "The Avengers" and "Star Wars," raising questions about how much it might invest in lower-budget movies likely to yield smaller box-office returns.
Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger has praised Fox Searchlight's work and offered assurances that high-quality, low-cost films have a place at his company, but he has given few details about his plans for Fox's film units. Disney also is buying the 20th Century Fox studio which produces blockbusters like "Planet of the Apes."
The company's purchase of Fox businesses is undergoing regulatory review that is expected to take at least a year. Comcast Corp has launched a rival bid for one asset -- Britain's Sky PLC -- which has complicated the deal.
In the meantime, "Shape of Water" is likely to enjoy renewed interest at movie box offices, where it has collected $126.4 million worldwide.
Last year's winner, "Moonlight," took in $5.7 million after it won best picture, or 21 percent of its total U.S. and Canadian ticket sales, according to comScore.
Also on Sunday, Disney's Pixar Animation Studios claimed best animated feature and original song for "Coco," the story of a young Mexican boy with a passion for music.
Comcast Corp's Universal Pictures won four awards, including best actor for Gary Oldman's portrayal of Winston Churchill in "Darkest Hour," and best original screenplay for Jordan Peele for "Get Out."
Peele thanked Universal executives for taking on the project. "I thought no one was going to make this movie," he said.
Time Warner Inc's Warner Bros. won four trophies, including three technical awards for "Dunkirk."
Netflix Inc, which is investing heavily in documentary and feature films, won best documentary for "Icarus" about the Olympic doping scandal in Russia.
Filmmaker Bryan Fogel thanked Netflix for exposing documentaries to a large audience around the world by releasing them simultaneously on its streaming service to 190 countries.
"Netflix has single‑handedly changed the documentary world," Fogel said. "They have given voice to documentary in a way that no company or distributor has ever done before."
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Sandra Maler)