CNN calls it the "Most Unlikely Hit of the Summer"http://www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/Movies/06/03/film.crash.reut/index.html
LOS ANGELES, California (Hollywood Reporter) -- "Crash," a film about race relations in Los Angeles with a cast including Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock and Matt Dillon, did not seem the obvious choice for an early summer success story.
But with the box office experiencing a slump this year, Lions Gate Films' pickup from the Toronto International Film Festival has become one of the season's few bright spots.
Its success can be credited to a bold release plan, an emotional marketing campaign and an aggressive screening program. For "Crash" has been able to do what few movies accomplish nowadays: It has attracted four very distinct demographic groups -- college students, upscale adult audiences, the urban market and females.
The result has been ticket sales of $36 million in just four weeks. The film could gross as much as $50 million -- a number that might exceed the final domestic grosses of the expected summer hits it opened against: 20th Century Fox's "Kingdom of Heaven" and Warner Bros. Pictures' "House of Wax."
And it hit that mark in an unconventional manner for a specialty film: by opening wide in the early summer instead of taking the more traditional route of opening in New York and Los Angeles in the fall, gaining traction through word-of-mouth and expanding to a critical mass just in time for Academy Awards consideration.
"Fall is a season when a lot of highbrow quasi-commercial pictures get released," Lions Gate Releasing president Tom Ortenberg said. "We didn't feel the need to wait that long and then compete in a crowded marketplace."
Lions Gate picked up the picture for $3.3 million in the fall and soon after pursued a wide release plan.
"We had great actors, a very promotable filmmaker and a lot of national press. We didn't want to waste it on a few city openings," said Ortenberg.
The film was perfectly timed in that writer director Paul Haggis was coming off his Oscar-nominated screenplay for "Million Dollar Baby," and Cheadle was fresh off his Oscar-nominated role in "Hotel Rwanda."
In retrospect, a platform release actually could have killed Haggis' directorial debut. While the film received mostly positive reviews around the country when it opened May 6 on 1,864 screens, film critics at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times issued scathing reviews.
"There was a lot of talk about a fall release in New York and Los Angeles, but there would be no conversations right now (about 'Crash') if we had done that," said John Hegeman, president of marketing at Lions Gate. "Our only bad reviews were in the New York Times and the L.A. Times."
Instead of betting on big-city reviews, Lions Gate instead relied on early data that showed the movie to have strong playability across different demos in addition to high marketability to those same groups. Although Ortenberg said the company spent less than $20 million to market the film, Hegeman added that the campaign went much deeper into each demographic than is usual. With four specific targeted audiences, the company bought more TV ads than it ever had before and spent more money than it usually does.
The other component to Lions Gate's marketing plans was a widespread screening program, targeting racial groups nationwide, both to get early feedback and also to spread the word about the film. Hegeman said Haggis, Cheadle and Dillon hosted screenings around the country to offer a "platform for people to talk." The film also received endorsements from such community leaders as Los Angeles Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa, the Rev. Al Sharpton and NAACP leaders.