How ''Crash'' rode off into the sunset with the cowboy's sure thing

By Joshua Rich
March 10, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST
  • Movie

Two years ago, the cast and crew of Crash gathered one night in a sketchy suburban L.A. neighborhood to shoot a scene for their movie. It was chaos. As the cameras zoomed in on Don Cheadle and Jennifer Esposito acting out a criminal investigation, some very real police tape kept hundreds of curious citizens at bay. Kids climbed onto rooftops to get a better view of the action. The crowd buzzed that Ludacris was coming to the set. Director Paul Haggis — merely a month after having suffered a small heart attack — repeatedly put a megaphone to his face to implore the crowd, ”¡Silencio, por favor!” before shouting ”Action!” All things considered, it’s amazing that he even managed to do that. How did this $7.5 million movie go from mass confusion to being the Academy’s Best Picture of 2005? Here are two keys that opened the door to the biggest Oscar upset in years.

For Lionsgate, the Oscar campaign really began back at the 2004 Toronto film festival, when the studio ponied up nearly $4 million for the movie. Instead of releasing the film that fall, it waited until May, when Crash could gain traction at the box office and position itself as 2005’s first movie to beat. During the fall and winter, says Lionsgate theatrical president Tom Ortenberg, ”you heard a lot of people saying, ‘Yes, I liked this film or that film, but you know the film I really liked? It was Crash.”’ Lionsgate played into this sentiment by running heart-tugging ads in trade papers asking Academy members to ”remember how it made you feel.” The filmmakers believe this tactic, along with the 130,000 DVDs they mailed to guild members, helped set the film apart. And if the barnstorming $4 million campaign evokes memories of Miramax in its Weinstein-led heyday, that could be because Lionsgate relied on the input of some key Miramax vets. ”[Just being] good is not, at the moment, enough,” producer Cathy Schulman says of Crash‘s triumph. ”It was about word of mouth and how you sustain yourself. And that required being distinguishable.”

Despite the film’s three Oscar wins, things actually haven’t been so cheery in Crashland lately. The fact that only two of its six credited producers — Schulman and Haggis — actually received trophies might have tipped you off. In the days preceding the awards, Schulman and fellow producer Bob Yari sued each other over money matters, and Yari then sued the Producers Guild and the Motion Picture Academy over the process by which they determined that he was ineligible for awards. ”I’m willing to forgo my good fortunes with the Academy to do this,” says Yari, who watched the Oscars with friends at a restaurant in the San Fernando Valley. ”If I don’t speak out…I don’t believe anyone will.” (A spokesman for the Academy declined to comment, while the PGA’s general counsel says ”there’s no merit whatsoever” to Yari’s suit.) Holding off on publicizing the disagreements until just before the Oscar ballot due date kept the media’s focus on the film instead of the controversy. But the situation did offer an amusing capper to the awards show: In the post-win haze, Schulman went on stage and thanked her nemesis not once…but twice.