Lionsgate's 'Crash' course

Maverick company's release strategy pays off big

With three Oscars for "Crash," Lionsgate capped off a remarkable year that proved art and commerce can coexist.

Already boasting one of the most envied business models in the business, Lionsgate can claim critical kudos as well as commercial success now that "Crash" has nabbed the year's most esteemed film prize. But even before the evening began, the racially themed film already had helped the independent studio make history, marking its best-ever showing with its six nominations that produced three wins -- in addition to best picture, it took home prizes for original screenplay and editing.

When the independently produced "Crash" premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2004, there was scant interest in the Paul Haggis-helmed drama.

"Surprisingly, no, there wasn't. I'm really not sure of any other interest," Lionsgate Theatrical Films president Tom Ortenberg said. "Our entire acquisitions team saw the very first screening of 'Crash' at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. We loved it. And we immediately entered into negotiations to buy the movie, which we wrapped up the next day."

Like so many unorthodox decisions made by Lionsgate, the maverick company released the awards contender in May. "We felt that it was in the best interest of the picture both for its theatrical box-office potential and for its awards potential," Ortenberg said. "We thought that taking it out in the spring would allow us to separate ourselves from the pack. The fall is usually glutted with a lot of pictures that are appealing to an upscale commercial audience."

After bowing wide in May, the film played well into the summer, followed by the DVD release in September. In October, Oprah Winfrey devoted an entire show to the movie, spurring even more interest in the L.A.-set story.

Ironically, even the ugly legal battles that emerged in recent weeks over the Academy's refusal to grant the film's financier Bob Yari a producing credit enjoyed fortuitous timing. The ensuing war of words aired in the media between Yari and producer Cathy Schulman, who have sued each other, took place after Oscar balloting was closed.

Now, in light of "Crash's" surprising Oscar performance, everyone involved with the picture is letting the good news sink in.

"I'm not happy; I'm ecstatic," Yari said after the ceremony. "I thought words like 'bittersweet' would come up. But there's little bitterness here right now. I think, for the time being, all antagonism goes aside. I can't even think a negative thought."