It split audiences, divided critics and even left its own producers warring. But "Crash" ultimately unified the one constituency that matters most in Hollywood: Academy Award voters.
In one of the biggest upsets in recent Academy Award history, "Crash" defeated "Brokeback Mountain" for the best picture Oscar on Sunday, also winning in the categories of best original screenplay and editing.
Though the provocative ensemble drama about race relations in Los Angeles dealt a blow to the heavily favored "Brokeback Mountain," the ascension of "Crash" symbolized not only the rise of independently financed movies but also this award season's emphasis on personal stories about divisive social issues.
"What an amazing night!" one of "Crash's" two credited producers, Cathy Schulman, said after the film's win was greeted by astonishment and applause inside the Kodak Theatre. Addressing her fellow best picture nominees, she said: "You have made this year one of the most breathtaking and stunning maverick years in American cinema."
"Brokeback Mountain," which had cleaned up at awards shows leading up to the 78th annual Oscars and was among the year's best-reviewed films, did win an Oscar for Ang Lee, the first non-white director to win the industry's top filmmaking prize. The controversial movie about cowboys in love also won trophies for adapted screenplay and score.
In upsetting "Brokeback Mountain" for best picture, "Crash" delivered as big a shock as when "Shakespeare in Love" toppled "Saving Private Ryan" seven years ago.
In choosing "Crash" over "Brokeback Mountain," the academy was picking between two small movies dealing with prejudice and intolerance. "Crash" isn't playing in theaters anymore, having been released on DVD in September. Not one of this year's best picture nominees has grossed more than $80 million in theaters; only "Brokeback Mountain" has come close.
Even though its win was unexpected, "Crash" represents an Academy Award trend. For the fourth consecutive year, none of the major Hollywood studios could claim credit for making and releasing a best picture winner — a span stretching back to Universal Pictures' "A Beautiful Mind." (Last year's winner, "Million Dollar Baby," was distributed by Warner Bros. but financed by independent Lakeshore Entertainment.)
And unlike past independent best film winners, which were fully financed by specialized companies such as Miramax Films, this year's non-studio films were bankrolled by a patchwork of private investors.
Of the best picture nominees, "Capote," whose Philip Seymour Hoffman took the best actor Oscar, was partially financed by a German investment fund and Canadian tax credits; "Good Night, and Good Luck" attracted deep-pocketed patrons in Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and EBay co-founder Jeff Skoll; "Brokeback Mountain" was helped to the screen by Bill Pohlad, whose family owns the Minnesota Twins; and "Crash" was bankrolled by a German media fund, the Blockbuster video chain and a bank loan.
Only "Munich" was 100% underwritten by a studio, but had not Steven Spielberg been at the helm it is unlikely that Universal — or any other studio, for that matter — would have backed the production about the aftermath of the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Prominent movie critics were sharply split on "Crash's" artistic merits, and audiences fell into two sharply polarized camps: those who loved the $7.5-million film, and those who loathed it. When the film was released in May, it carried the names of six separate producers, but only two — Schulman and the film's co-writer and director, Paul Haggis — were deemed eligible for the best picture trophy.
Financier Bob Yari, the film's first Hollywood supporter and one of the four delisted producers, has sued Schulman and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as part of the credit dispute, and Schulman has sued Yari. Schulman did, however, thank Yari in her acceptance speech.
Yari wasn't invited to the show, and watched the ceremony with colleagues at a Burbank burger joint. He said the controversy over the producing credit tainted his ability to enjoy the Oscars, but that the win gave him hope.
"It almost takes away all the hesitation I have to continue," he said.
Many of the other best picture nominees also split audiences along political, religious and aesthetic lines — and their box office returns suffered as a result. Eric Bana, who starred in "Munich" and was a presenter Sunday night, said the Oscars helped draw attention to movies some ticket buyers dismissed out of hand.
"There were a few films this year where people made up their minds without actually seeing the films or knowing much about them," Bana said as he entered the Kodak Theatre.
The ceremony's first award — a best supporting actor win for George Clooney in "Syriana" — was indicative of the evening's slate of nominees. Released by Warner Bros., the political thriller about oil and terrorism was subsidized by Skoll's Participant Productions; Clooney himself waived his up-front salary in order to get the outspoken movie made.
"This is not an industry that says OK. It has to be about big business and big budgets," Clooney said backstage after his win. "I think the beauty of the academy is that it finds little moments to say, 'Let's talk about these films and let's talk about things that maybe the rest of the mainstream doesn't get a chance to see.' "
Neither "Syriana" nor "The Constant Gardener," a drama about pharmaceutical corruption in Africa that won a best supporting actress Oscar for Rachel Weisz, sold nearly as many tickets as the winner for documentary feature, "March of the Penguins," which grossed $77.4 million.
Actor William H. Macy, whose wife, Felicity Huffman, was nominated for best actress in "Transamerica," said before the ceremony that he was encouraged by the kinds of movies Oscar voters singled out, and that they had performed well relative to their costs.
"The [best picture nominees] this year were not blockbusters but they were movies of depth," Macy said. "These films were successful too, and that's not getting enough attention."
Some Oscar-winning movies that were conceived as fully financed studio films were different animals by the time they hit theaters. "Memoirs of a Geisha," which won Academy Awards for costume design, art direction and cinematography, was developed at Sony Pictures, but the nervous studio sold a hefty share of the film to Spyglass Entertainment.
Even the specialized film companies that distributed four of the five best picture nominees are not immune to the relentless business pressures that make daring filmmaking increasingly difficult. Focus Features, which released "Brokeback Mountain," adheres to a rigid model that balances a film's artistic merit against its foreign sales potential. That formula prevented Focus from making 2004's "Sideways," which went on to be a critical triumph, win the adapted screenplay Oscar and turn into an art house smash, grossing more than $71 million.
The ceremony's honorary Oscar was presented to maverick director Robert Altman, recognizing a filmmaker who often works outside of — and has often expressed his open disdain for — the big studios.
Those studios could take some solace in the three wins collected by "King Kong" and the best actress trophy for Reese Witherspoon of "Walk the Line."
The show was hosted by Jon Stewart of the satirical news program "The Daily Show," the fourth Oscar host in as many years. Ratings for last year's show, for which Chris Rock was host, were down 3% from the previous year, and Oscar organizers worried that television viewership might be down again this year because so few people had seen the five best picture nominees.
But these movies were never intended to be blockbusters. They just had something to say. Noted Yari as he drove away from Mo's Restaurant to celebrate his film's unexpected triumph, "No matter how much we want to believe important messages drive Hollywood decisions, the greatest driver is financial potential."
Times staff writers Robert W. Welkos and Geoff Boucher contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times