Psst! Want a Free DVD of an Oscar-Winning Film?

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Didn't get around to seeing all last year's Oscar winners? Never mind, one of them may come to you, free, on DVD. In an unusual marketing move, the producers of Smile Pinki, which won the Oscar in February for Best Short Documentary, are giving away the movie to anyone who asks — and to some who don't. Ads touting the offer will run in 125 major papers on Sept. 9, and on Oct. 21 the DVD will be delivered with copies of USA Today and other Gannett papers to subscribers in affluent zip codes.

There's a teensy catch, of course. Although the movie makes no mention of it, it was entirely financed (to the tune of about $250,000) by Smile Train, an organization that seeks to fix cleft palates in children from developing countries. Smile Pinki follows the story of two of those children, Pinki and Ghutaru, from remote villages in India to a hospital in the city, to have their cleft palates fixed and their futures profoundly altered. (Children with cleft palates are often ostracized and find it difficult to get an education or to subsequently find a good job and build a family.)

The Great Oscar Giveway, as it is known, is the brainchild of Brian Mullaney, the president of Smile Train, who spent 20 years in advertising before starting the not-for-profit organization. It was his idea to make the documentary and aim for an Academy Award. (Probably not coincidentally, one of Smile Train's publicists used to work for Harvey Weinstein.) Having achieved that, he wants the movie to have a long tail. "Our biggest challenge is awareness. Nobody cares about clefts," he says. "Winning the Oscar was luck, but now that we've won it, it's like a Trojan horse. We're going to use the panache to get into 10 million homes."

Mullaney has tried the giveaway trick before, with impressive results. In 1993, he persuaded his then client Computer Associates (whose controversial founder Charles Wang is also a co-founder of Smile Train) to give away copies of its personal-finance software, Simply Money, to try to establish a bulkhead against market leader Intuit's Quicken. The "Free Money" campaign was so successful — garnering something like a million calls in two weeks — that it strained MCI's phone banks, says Mullaney.

He has equally high hopes for Smile Pinki. He notes that if just 1 in 100 people who order the DVD decide to become donors, it will have a vastly better success rate than most direct-mail programs. "Most charities would be horrified by all of this," he admits. "If you went to most boards and said you wanted to spend a quarter of a million dollars on a documentary that doesn't even mention the name of the charity, they'd be appalled. But this was the best $250,00 any charity ever spent."