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Lionsgate Aces Oscar Noms With Different Approaches

With 'La La Land' and three other visually striking films, the mini-major is way out in front

With 26 nominations across four movies, Lionsgate far outpaces every other studio in this year’s Oscar race. “La La Land” tied the nominations record for a single film, with 14; World War II drama “Hacksaw Ridge” brought embattled director Mel Gibson back into Hollywood’s good graces, with six; and Peter Berg’s “Deepwater Horizon” scored a pair in the crafts categories. Meanwhile, Lionsgate’s partnership with CBS Films, “Hell or High Water,” netted four.

What’s striking here is the variety on display. You have an uplifting musical about dreamers dreaming; a graphically violent war film that tells the inspiring, little-known story of a conscientious objector who saved countless lives; the tragic true story of a 2010 oil rig explosion that killed 11 people; and a neo-Western about the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis.

Each film presented challenges in establishing a visual identity, and that was going to be key, as the first step in any Oscar campaign is settling on the right creative marketing approach to connect with an audience.

With the promotional materials for Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land,” Tim Palen, Lionsgate chief brand officer and president of worldwide marketing, had the goal of replicating the film’s super-saturated atmosphere — while leaving room to dazzle with laurels.

“In our first meeting, one of the producers said, ‘I like negative space, but that’s a lot of negative space,’” Palen says. “I said, ‘We left it that way because we want to fill up that sky with all the awards and quotes we know are going to come pouring in over time,’ and everybody laughed. How grateful am I that it all came to fruition, because Damien made such an amazing and original film.”

For “Hacksaw Ridge,” Palen and his team were working within the well-worn war genre, so it was important to stand out. The final one-sheet is a striking illustration that goes against preconceived notions of what might work in this space.

“I’m a big fan of World War II propaganda illustrations and posters, especially old Red Cross kind of images,” Palen says. “It’s really hard and rare that you can actually aspire to something that is on the fine-art side, especially for a war movie. But I always want to. And when you get to work with a visionary person like Mel Gibson, you have your chance, because he has great taste and is brave and bold. A lot of filmmakers would be afraid of using an illustration.”

The aim with “Deepwater Horizon” was to establish the sense of being trapped at sea on a burning island, imagery that stuck in the marketing as other visuals evolved around it. Creative materials for “Hell or High Water,” meanwhile — a film Palen, a Kansas native, says he related to in many ways — were overseen by CBS Films president Terry Press and her team.

Palen’s first movie with Lionsgate was 2001’s “Monster’s Ball” which landed Halle Berry a historic Oscar, making her the first (and to date, only) African-American lead actress winner. He has been with the company ever since, working on Oscar contenders from “Precious” and “Rabbit Hole” to big winner “Crash.”

Lionsgate has changed in the meantime, launching and sustaining franchises like “The Hunger Games,” “Saw,” “The Expendables,” and director Tyler Perry’s stable of Madea movies, while also scaling at an incredible rate. Last year the company acquired cable network Starz for $4.4 billion. But Palen says maintaining the spirit of the studio that Canadian businessman Frank Giustra launched 20 years ago in Vancouver is important.

“I think we are, in a lot of ways, the exact same scrappy, punk-rock company,” Palen says. “And in some ways, we’re a completely different one. I think we’ve just grown up, but we’ve never grown out of ourselves.”

With that accelerated growth, in a time of turbulent moving and shaking in the media and entertainment world, many are wondering if Lionsgate has an eye on being rolled up by a larger entity. The prestige that comes with 26 Oscar nominations could certainly be leveraged to attract a buyer. Palen won’t speculate on that, but he will say that the level of trust the awards success affords the company goes a long way in the community.

“You attract a lot of attention, and you get a lot of credibility,” he notes. “It’s nice to go into a filmmaker meeting and have them say, ‘I trust you with my movie because look at what you did with these very different movies.’”

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