'Crash' win boosts Lionsgate

Roaring into history, Lionsgate picked up its first Oscar ever for best pic with the surprise win of writer-director Paul Haggis’ “Crash.”

Victory is the ultimate nod and caps a boffo year for Hollywood’s largest indie studio, which has successfully learned how to straddle two diametrically opposed genres — horror and upscale, arty fare.

“Crash” picked up three Oscars — Haggis and co-writer Bobby Moresco won for original screenplay, while Hughes Winborne won for film editing.

So far, Lionsgate has tried to stay out of a nasty legal battle brewing between two of the film’s producers, Cathy Schulman and Bob Yari over money and credit, among other things. Each has filed a lawsuit against the other.

Sunday night’s best picture win is sure to fuel to that feud, as well as to Yari’s separate legal battles with the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and the Producers Guild of America, which denied Yari a producing credit.

Schulman, who was provided a credit, was first to the mic Sunday night when accepting the Oscar with Haggis, and specifically thanked Yari.

When it came to the awards campaign for “Crash,” Lionsgate was just as aggressive about pumping the pic as it is about marketing its films. It became the first studio to ever send DVDs to all the members of most guilds. The strategy clearly seems to have paid off.

In recent days, the mainstream press buzzed with speculation that “Crash” now stood a chance of beating out Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain.”

Lionsgate has nabbed Oscars before. In 2002, Halle Berry won best actress for “Monster’s Ball,” while James Coburn won supporting actor for “Affliction” in 1999.

“Crash,” which Lionsgate acquired for $3.3 million after the film preemed at the 2004 Toronto Film Fest, grossed more than $53.4 million at the U.S. box office. (Production budget for “Crash” was around $6.5 million.) Studio says there has been a sharp spike in DVD sales, thanks to various awards noms and wins.

“All of our successes, both commercial and critical, play a role in attracting filmmakers and talent to Lionsgate,” said Tom Ortenberg, Lionsgate prexy of theatrical films. “But a movie like ‘Crash,’ which is both a critical and commercial success, really does a special job of helping brand the company,” he said.

With the recent sale of DreamWorks to Par, Lionsgate became the movie industry’s last remaining indie studio — making it all the more attractive to potential buyers.

But remaining a standalone has its advantages. Free from the restraints that go along with being owned by a parent conglom, Lionsgate can be more feisty and aggressive. It’s free to turn out horror fare other studios might balk at. (Screen Gems handed over “Hostel” to Lionsgate to release.)

In the last year, Lionsgate roared the loudest yet with its unusual blend of fare, which includes African-American-themed titles, in addition to horror and upscale pics.

“Saw II,” released on Halloween, gave Lionsgate its best box office performance to date with a three-day opening weekend cume of $31.7 million, making it No. 1 at the box office. Sequel went on to gross $87 million domestically and $61 million overseas. Combined, the first two installments in the “Saw” franchise took in $250 million worldwide.

Eli Roth’s hyper-horror pic “Hostel” was another home run for Lionsgate in January. Film opened No. 1 at the box office, and has made more than $50 million worldwide.

Likewise, Lionsgate scored with Tyler Perry’s “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” last year and, just recently, with Perry’s follow-up, Madea’s Family Reunion,” which opened No. 1 with an impressive $30.3 million domestic box office cume and stayed atop the box office in its second week.

The combined production pricetag for “Saw II,” “Hostel” and “Madea” –less than $15 million.

Lionsgate is getting ready to release another African-American themed title, “Akeelah and the Bee,” starring Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett and Keke Palmer. In a marketing coup for Lionsgate, Starbucks has inked a deal to promote the movie throughout its chain of stores. It’s the first movie Starbucks has ever marketed.

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