‘Crash’ Takes the Award for Best Oscar Campaign

Times Staff Writer

At one point during his Oscar monologue Sunday night, host Jon Stewart rattled off the names of some of the actors he spotted in the Kodak Theatre who were in the movie “Crash”: Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, Don Cheadle, Terrence Howard, Brendan Fraser and Ryan Phillippe.

Then he suggested that it might be easier for the actors in the audience who weren’t in the film to raise their hands.

The joke was funny, but it made a subtle point. A big ensemble production, “Crash” is an actor’s film, which probably best explains why it upset “Brokeback Mountain” to win the best picture Oscar.

Much of the morning-after punditry and blog logic has centered on whether members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had trouble giving “Brokeback Mountain” a best picture nod because of its gay love theme. Another theory: Like a cinematic John Edwards, “Brokeback” peaked too early and its Oscar buzz dissipated.


In fact, the key to the success of “Crash” was that the film itself -- and the carefully orchestrated promotional campaign undertaken by its distributor, Lionsgate -- appealed to the academy’s largest voting bloc: actors. With 22% of the voting members, the acting contingent is nearly three times as big as the next-largest group, producers.

It was actors -- specifically, those in Los Angeles -- who were targeted to deliver votes. And judging by the upset, deliver they did.

Oscar voting results are known only to a couple of accountants at PricewaterhouseCoopers, so it is impossible to compare actors’ voting habits with, say, those of writers or directors. Unlike a political election, the best anyone can do is offer educated guesses as to why any film won or who voted for it.

Ultimately, enough voters have to like a picture for it to win -- especially one as polarizing as “Crash,” because people don’t vote for movies they detest.


Still, one can’t ignore the effect of the finely tuned Oscar strategy of Lionsgate and its parent, Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. The company opened its wallet at key times in January and February to allocate an extra $2 million, bringing its total outlay to $4 million. Targeted were Los Angeles actors, the niche it needed to emerge from a field of five films, none of which was an obvious front-runner.

Lionsgate’s targeted effort could become a model for Oscar marketing in that it proved more effective than the usual carpet-bombing approach. Some believe that award-campaign impresario Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of Miramax Film Corp., pushed so hard to get statuettes for “Gangs of New York,” released in 2002, and 2004’s “The Aviator” that some voters were turned off.

“Crash” was the underdog from the start, with its difficult themes of racism and intolerance seeming no match for the love-is-universal underpinnings of the well-reviewed “Brokeback.” “Crash” also had to overcome a bias Oscar voters usually show toward ensemble films. Ensemble movies are popular with actors because they showcase subtle performances. But they rarely win best picture.

Perhaps fittingly, the same year “Crash” beat the odds, the honorary Oscar went to one of Hollywood’s premier big-cast directors: Robert Altman. It was Altman’s first Oscar after a body of work that earned him Oscar nominations, but not wins, for ensemble pieces “Nashville,” “MASH,” “Gosford Park,” “Short Cuts” and “The Player.”


Crucial to Lionsgate’s campaign was its decision to mail out 130,000 DVDs, including about 110,000 sent to actors. Not all recipients were Oscar voters. But “Crash” nonetheless won the best movie ensemble award from the Screen Actors Guild, an early tip-off that it might also have Oscar legs.

“Lionsgate’s decision to send out the DVD to SAG was a really smart decision,” “Crash” producer Cathy Schulman said Monday. “It was clear from the beginning of the film’s release that the actors were really supporting the film.... I presume that’s where a lot of the votes came from.”

There were other early hints that “Crash” might go the distance. In the awards issued by Hollywood’s directing, producing, art directing and writing guilds, “Crash” roughly held its own with “Brokeback” in nominations and wins.

When “Crash” received an editing Oscar nomination and “Brokeback” didn’t, Lionsgate executives thought it might be a bellwether. Their research showed that the last time a film was named best picture without an editing nomination was the 1981 ceremony, when “Ordinary People” won. That indicated that the academy’s film editors’ branch, another key voting bloc, favored “Crash.”


“Crash” also had in its favor a popular director and co-writer -- Paul Haggis -- who had worked with scores of actors during a long TV career on such shows as “The Facts of Life” and “thirtysomething.” Also popular with actors is Cheadle, who as well as starring in “Crash” was also a producer on the film.

“Crash” is likely to have scored points with some actors because it was shot in Los Angeles at a time when runaway film production is a sore point. “Brokeback” was shot in Canada, financed in part by Canadian tax incentives.

“Crash” was also set in Los Angeles, which probably gave it an additional home-field advantage. Seventy-eight percent of the academy’s voting members live in California -- the vast majority of them in the L.A. area. “Crash” won many outspoken local fans, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

By early January, Lionsgate had spent $2 million on trade ads and other promotions, but more was needed. The movie, which was released in May, was no longer in theaters, so getting the DVDs out was crucial.


In the days leading up to the close of voting on Oscar nominations Jan. 21, Lionsgate opened the spigot to spend $500,000 more. Once “Crash” got its six nods Jan. 31, an additional $1.5 million was earmarked.

“The two most important things about our campaign were getting ‘Crash’ to be seen by everyone who needed to see it and then reminding them of how ‘Crash’ made them feel,” said Tom Ortenberg, president of Lionsgate Theatrical Films.

The logic was to “win” the city, while counting on voters in the rest of the nation, mainly the New York contingent, to split their votes among all five nominees, which also included “Capote,” “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “Munich” as well as “Brokeback.”

Ortenberg said Lionsgate never intentionally ceded other parts of the country. But as a company with limited resources, he said, it had to focus on L.A.


Indeed, because Lions Gate Entertainment, a Canadian company that operates out of Santa Monica, is such a small public company, it had to own up to its additional spending -- roughly 3 cents a share -- last month in a conference call with Wall Street analysts. Some grilled company executives on the expenses and whether the spending was worth it.

Hours after actor Jack Nicholson opened the envelope and announced that “Crash” had won, that question appeared to have been answered.

Overnight, “Crash” jumped from No. 103 to No. 23 on’s top DVD sellers. Early Monday, analyst David W. Miller of Sanders Morris Harris raised his estimate of sales from a reissue of the “Crash” DVD scheduled for April 4 to about 150,000 copies, nearly double his previous estimate.

All told, Lions Gate Entertainment executives have estimated, the Oscar win could be worth as much as $10 million in additional money for “Crash,” not only in DVD sales but also in bigger payments when it is shown on TV.


And, analyst Miller said, “that might prove to be conservative.”

Times staff writers Rachel Abramowitz and Robert W. Welkos contributed to this report.