Campaigners copy cat

Lionsgate's aggressive screener strategy spawns imitators

It was a night of Oscar upsets and sore losers.

Even discounting “Brokeback Mountain” author Annie Proulx’s bitter editorial in The Guardian — “Rumour has it that Lions Gate inundated the academy voters with DVD copies of ‘Trash,’ ” she noted — best picture winner “Crash” endured its fair share of incredulous critics along with its ample voter support.

Less polarized, however, is the perspective on Lionsgate’s awards campaign for the film.

Three years after the John Fithian-led ban on awards screeners — during which Lionsgate sent out discs while studios fretted about piracy concerns — the indie outfit made the unprecedented decision to mail out nearly 100,000 DVD screeners to members of the huge Screen Actors Guild after “Crash” received three SAG noms.

The move is widely credited with not only propelling “Crash” to a SAG ensemble trophy, but giving the pic the boost it needed to win three Oscars.

“Lionsgate did a great job last year of being able to use the momentum and the support of the DVD release to get people to remember how good they thought the movie was,” says Rob Moore, Paramount prexy of worldwide marketing, distribution and home entertainment, who hopes to leverage similar support for “World Trade Center” this year.

“We knew going into the awards season that every single person was going to outspend us,” says Sarah Greenberg, Liongsgate theatrical marketing co-prexy. “Each year, we have to try and come up with the one thing that will set us apart from other studios, and last year we sent out the screeners, which caused a huge uproar in the biz. Nobody had done it before, and I believe we’ve set a precedent.”

At least one veteran awards publicist agrees: “This year, I’m afraid SAG voters are going to expect to receive screeners for all the nominees.”

For its part, Fox Searchlight has already released “Little Miss Sunshine” screeners to members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. and the Academy, and is printing more discs for the 2,100-member SAG nominating committee and other awards groups.

If the pic earns SAG noms, Searchlight could very well repeat the “Crash” strategy of mailing to the entire guild.

“I don’t know how you don’t at least give it serious consideration,” says Searchlight chief operating officer Nancy Utley. “We are mailing to the entire (11,000-member) Writers Guild, which we don’t normally do.”

Lionsgate theatrical films prexy Tom Ortenberg estimates the cost for the entire “Crash” screener mailing at $250,000 — roughly the same price as running a couple of full-page trade ads. “I don’t want to downplay the importance of awards season advertising,” he says, “but the most important thing is getting people to see your movie.”

Once “Crash” was nominated, Lionsgate’s plan was to secure the SAG award and show voters the movie could win. “We needed a breakthrough to stop the momentum of ‘Brokeback,’ ” Ortenberg explains, “not unlike what we were doing with Halle Berry on ‘Monster’s Ball.’ ”

In that race four years earlier, Berry was a distant best-actress underdog to Sissy Spacek. Then, Berry took the SAG trophy.

“In all elections, people don’t like to think that they’re throwing away their vote, so we needed to show that Halle could win,” Ortenberg says. “As soon as Halle won the SAG award, we felt that tidal wave. Everybody we talked to after that said they voted for Halle.”

Such a massive-scale screener campaign wouldn’t necessarily work for every film, Ortenberg admits. “Crash” had opened in May and was already out on DVD by September, which meant Lionsgate could mass-produce the DVD without additional piracy concerns.

It’s not the first time a studio has leveraged fortunate DVD release timing to mitigate an unfortunate theatrical release date during awards season. (In the decade prior to “Crash,” only two best picture winners opened before Dec. 1: “American Beauty” and “Gladiator.”)

Notable is Universal’s deft synchronization of the “Seabiscuit” DVD release with the film’s awards campaign three years ago — the film hit theaters in July 2003 but still managed to garner enough awards juice come Oscar time to tally seven noms, including best pic.

This year, U plans to use DVD to bolster its 9/11 drama “United 93.” And Fox hopes to use its Dec. 12 DVD release of “The Devil Wears Prada” to heat up Meryl Streep’s best actress campaign.

But while things probably haven’t come full circle in the three years since the screener ban, Lionsgate’s successful gambit may have convinced a few operatives that the reward justifies the piracy risk.

Searchlight preempted “Little Miss Sunshine’s” December disc bow to start sending out screeners. “I was afraid of being scooped, and we wanted to be first,” Utley says. “I’m an Academy member, and I try to do my due diligence and watch all (the screeners I receive), but as the stack gets high, it becomes very challenging.”

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