Many Oscarologists believe that one of the key reasons "Crash" pulled off an Oscar upset for best picture was because Lionsgate tried a sneaky new ploy: The studio sent DVD screeners to nearly 100,000 SAG members who vote on the guild awards. "Crash" ended up winning the SAG ensemble award, then beat "Brokeback Mountain" for the top Oscar.
It's expensive to blitz the full SAG membership, but some studios will spring for the investment if their film has been in theaters for a while and they can ship cheap, nonwatermarked DVDs. (If movies are new releases that must be sent via watermarked screeners, the cost is far, far too high.) As Pete Hammond reports, sending nonwatermarked DVDs costs about $200,000 and this year the following screeners were shipped trans-SAG: "An Education," "Inglourious Basterds," "Julie & Julia," "Precious" and "Up in the Air."
If Meryl Streep, Gabourey Sidibe or Carey Mulligan prevail in the best-actress race, it may because all voters saw their films, but they didn't get a DVD of "The Blind Side" starring rival Sandra Bullock. Jeff Bridges is widely considered to be the front-runner for best actor, but "Crazy Heart" wasn't sent to all SAG voters. It also wasn't widely seen in movie theaters, reaping only $2.5 million at the box office compared to $65 million for George Clooney's "Up in the Air," which was sent to guild members.
But maybe it doesn't matter if Streep and Clooney end up winning SAG awards tonight. Two years ago, DVDs of "Away from Her" were sent to SAG members, boosting Julie Christie to a SAG victory over Marion Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose," which wasn't sent via DVD to SAG voters). But Cotillard won the Oscar later.
However, lots of SAG champs do go on to win at the Oscars, many more in the lead races (66%) than in supporting (about 50%). Ten of the past 15 SAG winners of best lead actor and actress repeated at the Oscars. Direct comparison between the two awards is a bit tricky because sometimes stars compete in different categories. For example, last year Oscar's best lead actress Kate Winslet ("The Reader") won in supporting at SAG, giving Meryl Streep ("Doubt") victory in the top guild race. Benicio del Toro ("Traffic") won in supporting at the Oscars and lead at SAG (crushing "Gladiator" hulk Russell Crowe).
The reason for such impressive overlap is more than just the fact the two awards are voted upon by like-minded showbiz insiders. Indeed, they share many of the same voters. Winning at SAG can give a derby player momentum to leap ahead of rivals even after losing most previous precursor prizes. That's what happened to Halle Berry ("Monster's Ball") in 2001 when she triumphed on Oscar night after winning only at the National Board of Review before triumphing at SAG. That year Sissy Spacek ("In the Bedroom") romped early in the derby, sweeping up awards from the critics' groups and Golden Globes, and she looked unbeatable.
Last year only "The Dark Knight" was shipped on DVD to the full SAG membership. Heath Ledger won best supporting actor.
In 2007, two DVDs shipped to voters paid off with victories: "No Country for Old Men" (best ensemble, best supporting actor Javier Bardem) and "Away from Her" (best actress Julie Christie). Also sent were "Into the Wild," "3:10 to Yuma" and "Hairspray," which got skunked. Paramount Vantage didn't send DVDs of "There Will be Blood," which won best actor for Daniel-Day Lewis, but the studio did send a voucher for theater admittance to each guild member. But only one per member, not an extra for a guest, and many theaters didn't accept the voucher. In the end, we don't know how many vouchers were redeemed, so we don't know what effect they had.
In 2006, screeners played a big role in who won. Every movie — except one — that sent DVDs to the full membership ended up claiming an award at SAG or the Oscars or both: "The Queen" (best actress SAG and Oscar), "Little Miss Sunshine" (best supporting actor Oscar for Alan Arkin; SAG prize for best ensemble) and "The Departed" (Oscar for best picture). The lone shutout among aggressive campaigners: "Venus," starring SAG and Oscar best-actor nominee Peter O'Toole.
Over all, historically speaking, 11 DVDs were sent to the full SAG membership prior to this year; six scored SAG Award victories.
Photo: "Up in the Air" (Paramount)