Could 'Nightcrawler' Be the 'Crash' of This Season?

Tom Ortenberg, who ran Lionsgate's film division when it distributed 2005's best picture Oscar winner, now runs Open Road Films and believes that his top contender this year greatly resembles his underdog hopeful from nine years ago
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Nightcrawler'

Is Nightcrawler the best picture Oscar contender we're all underestimating?

Earlier this week I caught up with Tom Ortenberg, who was the president of theatrical films at Lionsgate nine years ago when that operation's Crash, a film about intolerance in the Los Angeles community, shocked the world by beating Brokeback Mountain to win best picture. Today, the 54-year-old runs Open Road Films, which is placing its chips this season on Nightcrawler, Dan Gilroy's directorial debut that stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a paparazzo-like creep who documents and sells footage to the local news of accidents that occur throughout L.A.

Ortenberg raised an interesting point with me — albeit one that he obviously has a stake in pushing — which is that Nightcrawler shares an awful lot in common with Crash.

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"I really do see similarities between Nightcrawler and Crash," he began, emphasizing the similarities in (a) the ways in which the two nonconventional awards contenders were brought to the attention of Oscar voters; (b) the reasons why they resonated strongly with L.A.-based voters; and (c) the methods by which their momentum was preserved over an extended period of time.

Origin Stories

Both Crash and Nightcrawler had their world premieres at the Toronto Film Festival — Crash was acquired there by Lionsgate in Sept. 2004 but was held for release until May 2005; Nightcrawler was bought at Cannes in May 2014 by Open Road, which had long been high on its script, was sold on it after seeing just a few minutes of footage at a market screening and then brought it to Toronto for its first public screening.

Both films evoked extremely passionate responses from audiences at Toronto and were put out into the world not as "awards films" but as well-made and entertaining films that people just plain liked. That positive buzz kept Crash in the discussion during the many months between not only its Toronto premiere and its theatrical release, but also the many additional months between its theatrical release and the awards season. Attention also sustained Nightcrawler during the months between Toronto and its own awards season.

"We didn't think that we needed to beat people over the head with it," Ortenberg explained. "The film got tremendous reviews out of Toronto, and Jake got great recognition out of Toronto, but still it wasn't being bandied about as that obvious awards film, and that was OK with us because we didn't feel that we needed to beat that drum so loudly ourselves. We knew that once the picture got into release and more people — a critical mass of people, of awards-season voters and consumers — started seeing the picture in October, Nightcrawler would affect them."

Sure enough, the film opened to great reviews — its 95 percent positive rating on RottenTomatoes.com is 20 percent stronger than the reception accorded Crash and better than all other 2014 Oscar-eligible films except Boyhood, Life Itself, The Lego Movie, Whiplash and The Babadook — and plenty of accolades. In addition to appearing on dozens of top 10 lists (including the American Film Institute's and National Board of Review's) and garnering awards from critics groups across the country (such as London's and the Online Film Critics Society's), it also landed a best picture Critics' Choice Award nomination. And, in one of the most competitive years in the history of the best actor category, Gyllenhaal landed the holy trifecta of acting noms — Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Critics' Choice — which have only 14 times gone to a performer who did not go on to receive an Oscar nom for that same performance.

Ortenberg summed it up. "It perhaps wasn't an immediate, obvious awards kind of movie, and yet, as everybody in the community saw all of the various award contenders, we all started hearing things like, 'I liked [this film]' and 'I respect and admire [that other film], but you know what film I really loved? Nightcrawler' … Nightcrawler really seems to touch and affect and stick with people in a way that I'm just not sure some of the other pictures do this year."

The L.A. Factor

Ortenberg also suggested that both Crash and Nightcrawler appeal disproportionately well to people in the Los Angeles area, which also happens to be the home of the vast majority of academy members, because, as he put it: "They're both very much L.A. stories — they're movies that are about Los Angeles, that were shot in Los Angeles, that are important to the L.A. community and that say a lot about Los Angeles."

In Nightcrawler, the city is gorgeously documented in a recognizable but unusual sort of way — "seeing the hills of Los Angeles at night shot in this way by Robert Elswit, you've just never seen Los Angeles portrayed that way," he gushes. While the film — and especially Gyllenhaal's character — plays as creepy anywhere, it resonates strongly with viewers in the city in which TMZ and the paparazzi are out every night instigating incidents and/or documenting their aftermaths, however gruesome they might be.

"Folks here in Los Angeles — they recognize it, they're drawn to it," he continued. "With the large percentage of academy voters based in Los Angeles, it's natural for them to seek the movie out, to be talking about the movie and to be affected by the film."

And, as we all know, a movie can't get nominated or win if voters don't see it, so provoking their interest to see it is a huge part of the battle — which leads nicely into the last of the three points.

Getting the Film Seen

The most important, some would say game-changing, moment of the Crash campaign was the decision made by Ortenberg and his then-awards strategist Cynthia Swartz to send screeners of the film, at great expense, to the entire membership of the Screen Actors Guild — something that was unprecedented at the time — because they were banking on the fact that actors would love the ensemble film as much as anyone, and if they gave it their seal of approval at the SAG Awards then the actors in the academy, who account for its largest branch, would follow. In the end, this worked like a charm: The film won the best ensemble SAG Award and went on to win the best picture Oscar.

The lesson that Ortenberg took away from this, in crafting a game plan for Nightcrawler, was not specifically to target actors — although they do seem to be very into the film — but rather to just give every constituency a chance to see the film. He explained, "Beyond all release strategies or positioning or anything else, the most important thing about Nightcrawler or any other film is getting it seen by awards-season voters and letting them make up their own minds."

Therefore, he focused not only on screeners but on getting the low-budget indie seen on as many big screens as possible for as long as possible. "We've been very aggressive in the theatrical release," he told me. "We opened the picture in over 2,700 theaters back in October. We fought really hard for holdovers to keep the picture going right through Thanksgiving. And in early December, we were still in a few hundred theaters, but we still did a new push and rereleased the picture in almost 1,300 theaters on Dec. 5, just to keep it present. And we're still in a couple hundred theaters." He continued, "We're four-walling some theaters to keep it very much a theatrical experience right through the holidays, and we anticipate adding even more theaters in early January."

Of course, as Lionsgate did with Crash and as any distributor that wants its films to have a prayer of getting Oscar-nominated in this day and age, Open Road also sent out screeners — widely. Ortenberg ran down the list: "We have, of course, sent our screeners to the entire academy, to all of the major critics groups, to all of the major guilds. And we are making the film available to the entire Screen Actors Guild membership. We want the movie seen by as many people as possible."

Getting a film seen by a large number of voters is, alone, not enough to get it major nominations — everyone and their mother saw Inside Llewyn Davis too. But getting a film seen by a large number of voters when it is a film that voters are likely — and perhaps even predisposed — to like could be.

It worked for Crash. It could work for Nightcrawler. Time will tell.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

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