SAG noms a holiday gift for Lionsgate

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Ensemble excitement: This may be a day for hurrying to exchange Christmas presents, but I can assure you that at Lionsgate there's one holiday gift they're definitely not returning.

I'm referring, of course, to the Screen Actors Guild's ensemble cast nomination for Lionsgate's "3:10 to Yuma," directed by James Mangold and produced by Cathy Konrad. By virtue of SAG recognizing "3:10" with an ensemble nod, the Guild's equivalent of a best picture nom, the critically acclaimed western drama now has a good shot at getting into Oscar's best picture race. Actors make up the Academy's biggest branch and in 2006 Lionsgate enjoyed a best picture Oscar victory with "Crash" after springboarding off a SAG ensemble cast win.

SAG's pre-Christmas gift was great timing because "3:10" hadn't resonated at all with the critics groups or Golden Globes and was starting to look like a non-starter for the Oscars. Now, thanks to SAG, it's prospects are greatly improved. I was surprised that the critics groups didn't applaud "3:10" since it opened to favorable reviews, which is evident from its 87% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com.

"3:10's" ensemble is led by Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Peter Fonda, Getchen Mol and Ben Foster. Even though I've never been a big fan of westerns, I thoroughly enjoyed this one and put it on my Top Ten List. If you missed seeing that column click here .

On the heel's of "3:10's" SAG nom, I was happy to be able to ask Lionsgate president Tom Ortenberg about its impact.

"It's a terrific Christmas present, indeed, and really terrific news for us and we're, of course, just thrilled for all the '3:10 to Yuma' filmmakers and the actors involved," he told me. "The recognition from the Screen Actors Guild is extremely rewarding and very much appreciated."

By the way, "3:10" wasn't the only Lionsgate film that the Guild recognized. "Julie Christie was also nominated by SAG," he added, referring to Christie's best actress nod for writer-director Sarah Polley's drama "Away From Her." With a 94% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com, "Away" is one of the year's very best reviewed movies. Christie is a Golden Globe nominee for best actress and has already won best actress honors from the National Board of Review, critics groups in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Toronto, San Diego and Phoenix and the New York Film Critics Online. Christie's SAG nomination will almost certainly put her in Oscar's best actress race.

"It's incredible news for Julie and we're thrilled for her and for Sarah Polley and the rest of the 'Away From Her' team," Ortenberg said. "Julie has just become one of the great stories of the 2007 awards season in that if she continues this momentum and (is) fortunate enough to win the Oscar come Feb. 24 it will be longest gap ever between people winning Oscars. It'll be 42 years from her last Oscar to potentially this one. She won in 1965 for 'Darling.' Ever since the '60s, the only decade that Julie Christie was not nominated for an Oscar was the 1980's.

"She was nominated and won in 1965 for 'Darling.' She was nominated in the 1970's for 'McCabe and Mrs. Miller.' She was nominated in the '90s for 'Afterglow.' And with any luck maybe she'll be nominated again in the 2000's with 'Away From Her.' So we really couldn't be happier. Julie is not just a goddess, but one of the sweetest people in the world. So we're thrilled for her success, as well."

Coming back to "3:10," I noted that Lionsgate already saw Oscar lightning strike once with "Crash" thanks to a similar set of events involving SAG. As part of the awards campaign for "Crash," Ortenberg and the smart marketers at Lionsgate came up with the idea of sending DVD screeners of the film to all of the roughly 100,000 SAG members. They succeeded in getting the movie seen by so many voters that it won and that, in turn, triggered its Oscar success.

"We are going to do the full SAG mailing for both '3:10 to Yuma' and 'Away From Her' this year," Ortenberg explained. "It's really just part of our thought process in terms of the awards season in that people won't vote for you unless they see the movie. So let's try and make it as easy as possible on people to see our movies. We're a great believer in our films and our filmmakers. We don't believe that awards season is all about marketing so much as it is really about getting the right people -- in this case, awards committees be they critics groups, guild members, the Academy, whoever -- to see our movies and then let's let the chips fall where they may. We're happy to put our films and our performances up against anybody else's this year and in past years with films like 'Crash.'

"We know how good our movies are and how good our performances are and we just want our movies to be seen and to let awards season voters decide for themselves what the best films are this year and the best performances in those films. So we'll be doing a full SAG mailing. We're fortunate enough timing wise where 'Away From Her' is already out on DVD and '3:10 to Yuma' comes out on DVD commercially on Jan. 8. So again the timing for a mass mailing of 100,000 DVDs is good for us. The commercial DVDs are already in the marketplace and so certainly we'll have less concerns about piracy or anything like that."

While it's certainly not cheap to do something like this, Ortenberg emphasizes, "The duplication and shipping of awards season screeners is really a pretty small cost compared to a lot of the other things that go on during awards season. So we see it as a small price to pay in order to achieve our goal of getting awards season voters to see our movies, which again is simply the most important thing of the awards season -- to get people to see our movies and let them decide for themselves."

With regard to "3:10," he noted, "We have sensed over the last few months, ever since (the film) was released theatrically in September, that the movie was really affecting people in a big way. As well as the film was reviewed -- and it is one of the better reviewed films of 2007 -- we knew that it was resonating with regular people across the country even more so than with critics. Frankly, the Academy membership is made up of more regular kinds of people and moviegoers than film critics and the same is true for the guilds. So that's why we were thrilled, but not necessarily surprised, by the recognition from the Screen Actors Guild when some of the earlier critics groups were not recognizing '3:10 to Yuma' as we might have hoped because (the film) does touch people in way that I think we're now just beginning to see.

"And so we're hopeful (it will get) recognition from some of the other guilds and, of course, the Academy to follow. But there's really an organic process going on of people having discovered '3:10 to Yuma.' It didn't come out of the gate in September with the highest concept of any of the fall films, but it was well reviewed, we opened well and the movie really hung in there, which tells you people really liked the movie. We opened up to a $14 million weekend in September, which we were very proud of, but the movie then got well over $50 million, which shows that people really liked this movie. I think as we move on to the various guilds' nominations and then to the Academy, I think that's the kind of passion for the film we're hoping to see recognized."

Having recently watched "3:10" on DVD, myself, I should point out that it's a film that looks quite good on home screens just as "Crash" did. There are, of course, some movies that don't work well on DVD because they really need to be experienced on giant theater screens. "3:10" is fortunate in that it looks great at home.

When I mentioned to Ortenberg that many Academy members may have an affection for westerns because they're old enough to have begun their careers working on them when they were one of Hollywood's most popular genres, he replied, "I certainly hope you're right. Westerns are so beloved by so many within the industry -- and I think you're exactly right in, perhaps, pointing to the origins of that. When so many members of the Academy were starting out in the business, westerns were a more popular genre in motion pictures. But even though not as many westerns are made today and there's a sense that it is a dying breed in the motion picture world, when a good one comes out the industry and even the public as a whole is so grateful to have a well done western that they can wrap their arms around and really get into and appreciate. I've heard from so many people that have seen '3:10 to Yuma' more than once.

"I think it's a film that does really stick with people because there aren't a lot of westerns and not a lot of terrific westerns like '3:10 to Yuma.' When one like (it) comes out, people really want to embrace it. And that is a testament to our director, Jim Mangold, his producer, Cathy Konrad, and the entire cast. And the commercial and critical reception for the film has just made that much more heartwarming because it wasn't an easy film to get made."

Mangold and Konrad told me in my conversation with them here in late August that they brought "3:10" to Lionsgate after it failed to get off the ground in development at Sony. They also got nowhere trying to mount it at Fox, despite the fact that they'd just scored a major boxoffice and awards success for Fox with "Walk the Line." To read that column click here.

"When '3:10 to Yuma' came to us," Ortenberg said, "it was fully packaged with a terrific director, Jim Mangold, with a great producer, Cathy Konrad, and with a cast headed by Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Ben Foster, Peter Fonda and others. It was easy for us to say yes where, apparently, others had said no. I can't really speak to why others may have said no, but to us it was a gift from the heavens, this package falling in our lap. We are eternally grateful for the opportunity."

Clearly, Lionsgate saw the project's great potential despite it being in the less popular western genre. "When we got the package it was a terrific script," Ortenberg pointed out. "And speaking about the western genre specifically, to us it's like every other genre -- which is, if you do it well it's viable. A western not done well? Not viable. But we say that about every film. A comedy not done well? Not viable. A horror picture not done well? Not even the masters of horror like us at Lionsgate can spin it into gold. So to us, it was a terrific package. We didn't look at the western genre as one that is over or tired or not viable. We looked at it as a genre that was underserved. It came to us and (we thought), 'Here's a really well written western with a great director, producer and a fantastic cast all rolled into one. Let's do it!'"

The decision to make the film was a quick one: "It did not take us long to say yes. The finished product was terrific. It's turned out to be a very rewarding picture and very profitable for us, we're happy to say, and we just have our fingers crossed that we get continued awards season recognition as we head into the homestretch. But I do think the important thing is that the success that (the film) has had both commercially and now as we head into awards season has really been an organic success.

"I think it's easy for people to tell this was never a manufactured campaign. The movie really had the goods. A western is certainly not going to succeed today if it doesn't have integrity and credibility in the genre. And it's the same thing, I think, in the awards campaign. Like SAG did, hopefully other guilds and the Academy will recognize the same quality in the motion picture that we envisioned when we decided to get involved."

Lionsgate's awards marketing of "3:10," of course, involves more than just trying to sway SAG voters. "We've been as aggressive as we can be in showcasing '3:10 to Yuma' to all of the relevant guilds," Ortenberg observed. "We've mailed screeners wherever we've been allowed to. We've screened the picture wherever we possibly can and for as many guilds and other organizations as we've been able to. So, yes, we've been very aggressive in promoting the picture to all of the various guilds and have our fingers crossed that the other guilds will recognize the film as SAG was kind enough to do."

Looking at the studio's efforts to promote the film for awards , Ortenberg told me, "This campaign is not about style and flash. It's really about substance. And we're just thrilled with the way that people have responded to the picture. The relatively organic nature of people taking to the movie is what we're both proud of and what we're trying to emphasize as a company."

Returning to "Away From Her," I told Ortenberg that it's the kind of film some observers would associate more with the major studios' specialty arms than with Lionsgate and yet it's been such a good fit with Lionsgate. "As Lionsgate has grown over the last several years," he replied, "we've evolved into a company that has been less reliant on art house fare and we've gotten more involved with bigger commercial pictures. But we are committed to staying involved in the independent and prestige film business. And that's exactly why we acquired 'Away From Her' in Toronto last year.

"We didn't know what the boxoffice prospects for the film were, but we knew it was a terrific film. We knew that it was an award caliber picture. And we knew that it was important for Lionsgate to stay involved with award caliber more art house type fare because that's the kind of movies we made a name for ourselves with starting about 10 years ago. And it's the kind of film that we think is always going to help brand Lionsgate as a company."

Recalling Lionsgate's early days, Ortenberg added, "Our first hits were pictures like 'Gods and Monsters' and 'Affliction' and 'The Red Violin' and then we graduated up to 'Monster's Ball.' For all of the commercial success we've had the last few years -- and 2007 marks the fourth straight year that we've done over $300 million at the boxoffice -- it's still pictures like 'Gods and Monsters,' 'Affliction,' 'Red Violin,' 'Monster's Ball' that filmmakers often cite when they come in for meetings with us as the kind of films that first attracted them to Lionsgate.

"So we think it's important to keep doing movies like that and, hopefully, every once in a while the big commercial pictures and the award caliber pictures will mix -- like with 'Crash' and '3:10 to Yuma.' I don't think they're mutually exclusive, but even if we're not doing it as much as we used to, being involved in the prestige art house business is always going to be a part of our business."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From June 22, 1990's column: "As the cost of movie tickets continues to increase, so are the pitfalls Hollywood may face as a result.

"The recent news that Loews Theatres has followed Cineplex Odeon's lead in raising its admission price in New York from $7 to $7.50 is very discouraging. As I observed here when Cineplex Odeon went from $7 to $7.50 in Los Angeles, theater circuits stand to profit more from boosting concession stand prices than from upping the cost of admission. If prices are adjusted to increase the average food purchase by 50 cents, theaters can keep 100% of that additional revenue rather than having to share as film rentals with distributors those extra half-dollars for admission.

"There are those who argue that moviegoing isn't price sensitive because even at $7.50 a ticket it's still one of the least expensive forms of entertainment or recreation. While it's certainly true that moviegoing is easier on the pocketbook than going to the theater or to many sporting events, it doesn't mean that people don't care about what it costs.

"In this age of home video, many moviegoers make an immediate distinction between pictures they feel they must see in theaters and are, therefore, worth $7.50 or whatever the going rate may be, and more marginal films that they're just as happy to wait to see six months later in video for a dollar or two per night. Higher ticket prices are almost certain to broaden many moviegoers' definition of what's marginal.

"Hollywood is already starting to perceive that this summer there will be a number of films that manage to gross $100 million but won't get to $150 million. In determining who killed blockbuster grosses, higher admission prices will deserve some of the blame. Blockbusters typically result when films generate repeat ticket sales. Indeed, Hollywood has come to prize the younger male demographic group -- males under the age of 25 -- because research has found that younger males will go to see films they like more than once.

"As prices increase, however, they're likely to impact on repeat moviegoing by younger males. Adults are more selective about how much time they'll devote to moviegoing. They will continue to spend whatever it costs to see those few films they feel they really want to see. Under-25 moviegoers, who face strong peer pressure to see heavily hyped pictures, can also be expected to continue to buy tickets to movies that rank atop their must-see lists..."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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