How Orion Kept Its ‘Lambs’ Alive : Oscars: Even though the film opened in February, 1991, videos sent to academy members helped to keep them aware of it at awards time. Jeffrey Dahmer may also have been a factor.


A well-timed promotional campaign--including elegantly boxed copies of the videotape mailed out in November--helped keep “The Silence of the Lambs” alive in the minds of members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, enabling the film to defy the Hollywood truism that an early release is the kiss of death for Oscar consideration, industry observers said Tuesday.

The strategic importance of videocassettes was only one of a number of theories advanced in the wake of the film’s sweep of this year’s Oscars, in which it picked up the top awards for best picture, actor and actress, director and adapted screenplay.

Although it won four major awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, “The Silence of the Lambs” was not an early favorite to win the academy’s most coveted honors. It had opened last February; as year-end releases, “JFK,” “The Prince of Tides,” “Bugsy” and “Beauty and the Beast” were still getting public attention when “Lambs” seemed all but forgotten. And its subject matter--an FBI trainee’s hunt for a serial killer--seemed too gruesome to overcome an academy tradition of recognizing movies with wholesome themes.


But “The Silence of the Lambs” had several other things going for it: excellent reviews; the soaring careers of stars Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins; frequent screening on cable television just around the time ballots were being cast; sympathetic feelings about Orion Pictures, the now-bankrupt studio that released the film, and--according to at least one theory--the widespread publicity given to serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s arrest last July.

“Jeffrey Dahmer kept ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ in the news,” said Gregg Kilday, senior writer for Entertainment Weekly.

Based on past experience, “The Silence of the Lambs” certainly would have seemed to be a long shot. Indeed, in the past two decades, the academy has bestowed its best picture award on only two movies--”The Godfather” in 1972 and “Annie Hall” in 1977--that opened early in the year.

But in November, academy members received in the mail a package containing the videocassette, an audio tape of the sound track and a screening calendar. Since the video was already in the stores, Orion did not have to worry about piracy, studio executives said. The mailing was augmented by a “reasonable but not excessive trade campaign,” costing the same but undisclosed amount spent on last year’s best picture, Orion’s “Dances With Wolves,” according to Mike Kaiser, president of marketing.

Meanwhile, the video was already a smashing success. Released last Oct. 24 to capitalize on the Halloween horror market, “The Silence of the Lambs” was one of the top video rentals for the next four months--topping the Billboard magazine rental chart initially and then lingering in the Top 10 through early February.

But discounting the significance of the video, Hollywood Reporter columnist Robert Osborne asserted that the movie’s multiple Oscars “can almost directly be laid to cable.” Dial-flipping academy members who had seen the movie a year ago would “inadvertently get caught up in it,” and be reminded of how well made it was, he said.

“If they had voted six months ago, I think ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ might have been well-respected but it wouldn’t have dominated,” Osborne added.

By making her heavily publicized directorial debut with “Little Man Tate” in October--which landed her on the cover of Time magazine--Jodie Foster may have reinforced positive impressions of her Oscar-winning performance as the FBI trainee who matches wits and nerves with the deliciously sadistic psychiatrist-turned-cannibal, Hannibal Lecter, played by Hopkins.

Foster, who won a best actress Oscar in 1988 for her role as a rape victim in “The Accused,” is an especially popular and respected figure in Hollywood. “The industry sees her as one of their own, delivering on all her early promise,” Kilday said.

Hopkins may have helped the movie’s chances--as well as his own for best actor--by turning in a highly acclaimed performance in the new movie “Howards End.” Although the film has yet to open in Los Angeles, academy members may have attended advance screenings and are likely to know that it has received excellent reviews in New York and the national press.

Time movie critic Richard Schickel said it was apparent at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Monday night that the audience took “a gleeful pleasure in Hopkins’ performance” as “the absolute, ultimate villain.”

“A chance to play a role like that is red meat to an actor,” Schickel added.

Whatever the theories, however, Orion’s Kaiser said there was only one bottom-line factor to consider. “I think the movie won on its merits,” he said.

Times staff writers Robert W. Welkos and Dennis Hunt contributed to this story.