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How did 'The Hurt Locker' defy the odds at the Oscars?

March 8, 2010 |  5:07 pm

It's amazing that "The Hurt Locker" won best picture at the Oscars despite having three strikes against it. "The Hurt Locker" didn't feature A-list stars. It wasn't successful at the box office. And maybe, worst of all: it was about the Mideast war, a topic usually cursed at the Academy Awards.  

So how did it pull off this Oscar miracle?

For starters, "The Hurt Locker" had some high-caliber oomph behind it. It was distributed by Summit, a studio with bold leaders who had deep pockets and something to prove. Flush with money from the "Twilight" movies, Summit wanted to be taken seriously as an artistic player in Hollywood.

The Hurt Locker Oscars Academy Awards news

Early on, Summit hired Cynthia Swartz and her Oscar soldiers at 42West to head up its academy campaign. Swartz had been a key player in the past blitzkriegs behind "Chicago" (and other Miramax flicks when she was still a commander in Harvey Weinstein's army), "Crash" and "No Country for Old Men" and other successful award champs.

Swartz likes to take on daredevil challenges. A few years ago, for example, she adopted a gritty, hip-hop film called "Hustle & Flow" just to see if she could ram it past the academy's fuddy-duddy bias. Bingo. She ended up nabbing a best-actor nomination for Terence Howard and reaped a win for best song ("It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp").

The initial groundswell of support for "The Hurt Locker" came from a pure, heroic source: the film critics. It hadn't fared well on the awards front at first. It competed last year at the Indie Spirits, for example, and only reaped nominations for actors Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie. Nothing for picture, director or screenplay.

But when "The Hurt Locker" entered this year's derby, things were different. It gathered momentum quickly, launching a bandwagon that was hard to stop. The Indie Spirits' rival award, the Gotham, named it best picture. It swept the film critics' trifecta: Los Angeles, New York and National Society. Those are critics' groups comprised of mostly print-based, cynical, gritty journalists who are renowned for picking quirky stuff like "Mulholland Drive" that doesn't break through into the Oscars. Then "The Hurt Locker" won best picture from the Critics' Choice Awards. That was odd because it's a prize bestowed by members of the Broadcast Film Critics Assn. They're largely part of the junket press just like Golden Globe voters. Both groups tend to be similar in taste to Oscar voters.

The Golden Globes picked "Avatar," but that wasn't too strange: they've been out of sync with Oscar voters four out of the past five years. Then something extraordinary occurred. "The Hurt Locker" won laurels from the directors' and producers' guilds, which usually predict what wins best picture at the Oscars. Think about it: the producers — people in charge of generating profit — endorsed a financially unsuccessful movie. That meant that "The Hurt Locker" had not only crossed over from the film critics to the film industry, but that it landed with nuclear force.

As "The Hurt Locker" headed into the Academy Awards, it was clear that it could beat the odds and actually win. When nominations came out, "The Hurt Locker" and "Avatar" tied for the most: nine. Right behind, with eight, was "Inglourious Basterds."

"The Hurt Locker" positioned itself as little David battling Goliath ("Avatar"), a shrewd move since everybody always roots for the little guy. In this case, though, it wasn't a guy. Its filmmaker was a sexy gal, Kathryn Bigelow, who just so happened to be the ex-wife of Goliath – "Avatar's" James Cameron. What irresistible drama! Even better, if Oscar voters picked sexy Team Bigelow to endorse, they got a bonus. They got to make history by giving the Oscar for best director to a woman for the first time — a breakthrough long overdue.

Looking back, maybe "Avatar" never had a realistic chance of beating "The Hurt Locker." No sci-fi movie has ever won best picture. Only two ever got nominated: "Star Wars" and "E.T." "Basterds" had a realistic chance of sneaking by them both considering it won best ensemble at the SAG Awards, a prize that's tattled twice before on Oscar best-picture upsets in the works: "Crash" and "Shakespeare in Love." But its push came too late. If only Harvey Weinstein had given up on "Nine" and jumped aboard his "Basterds" horse earlier, he might have ridden it to victory. Looking back, I think "Basterds" was the only film that could've stopped the "Hurt Locker" bandwagon.

Summit hasn't revealed how much it spent on its academy campaign, but a source close to the film insists that it was modest. An Oscar campaigner behind a rival film up for best picture (not "Avatar") scoffs at that claim. Some Oscar-watchers believe that 20th Century Fox spent the most of all Oscar campaigns this year on behalf of "Avatar," but that's hard to establish. "Avatar" was released at Oscar time. Its expenditures for an awards blitz were inter-mingled with regular PR, advertising and marketing.

Even if "Avatar" did spend the most, it couldn't stop the "Hurt Locker" juggernaut. Nothing could, not even a few suicide bombs set off by "The Hurt Locker" troop themselves. The movie that started out with three Oscar strikes against it ended up having three more near the end of the derby: accusations that it wasn't accurate, accusations that it was too accurate (an army sergeant claims the movie ripped off his own story) and the embarrassment of its producer being banned from the Oscars ceremony because he broke campaign rules with offensive emails. Together, they added up to a serious plot complication -- another twist that looked like it had been ripped from a Hollywood movie just like the whole setup of an ex-husband and wife squaring off with David vs. Goliath movies in the Oscars coliseum.

In the end, the best-picture Oscar victory of "The Hurt Locker" is more than just a great thing for Summit. It's good for the Oscars because it was championed all through derby season by film critics who believed strongly in its quality and only had the most noble of motives.

But why did all of these awards, including the Oscars, agree on this Mideast war movie after previously pooh-poohing others like "In the Valley of Elah" and "Jarhead"? Probably because "The Hurt Locker" doesn't force viewers to make a political judgment about the war. Instead, it forces viewers to experience first hand the terror and horror of what it's like to live in a sun-baked hell where everything could, literally, blow up in your face at any moment.

Photo: "The Hurt Locker" (Summit)

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Comments

Being 'fair and balanced',Hurt Locker is a good movie and deserved to be nominated, and nobody argue the fact of Bigelow winning best direction. However... it seems it is pure politics that made it win best picture. 'Avatar', for people saying has not a solid story, are blind. It recaps all major events on oppresion and also what is going on with occupation from US/UK forces nowadays in the Middle East and elsewhere, so that's a bogus claim to say Avatar is not an intelligent movie. Yes, is a Sci-fi, but putting in an overall, had more merits to be best picture than Hurt Locker. The Academy can say and do whatever they like, but people all over the world are watching and feeling something completely different.

Looks like many have missed the real clue; posting my yesterdays' comment once again (please bear with me Editor):

I was stunned so many awards have gone to Hurt Locker (starting with America guild, BAFTA and now Oscars); which is not worthy enough because in the recent years many deserving movies made on Iraq and Afghan war themes were either dumped or ignored. Why suddenly tons of love was flooding?

At couple of forums I've stated that The Hurt Locker is also an over-rated film. Any sane individual could comprehend on why the Awards were graced on this film - only to brush off The Avatar (slap on its anti US/UK war machine).

As usual, like we've seen in case of Winter Olympics (anti Russian results), there was a kinda conspiracy for sure. They played it badly (fiddling & politics) with the well deserving movies such as Avatar.

Many think "Generation Kill" was 100 times better compared to Hurt Locker because it was based on over 90% *real* incidents (embedded reporter). Hurt Locker wasn't! Point is, did Generation Kill win any major non-film award? NOPE.

Then, why only Hurt Locker :)

Anyone who really believes that politics and "campaigning" does not affect the Oscars is not real. The only two Awards that were truly based on quality, to me, were Christoph Waltz (the best performance of the year, supporting or lead) and Monique, who did not campaign. Meryl Streep has lost the past two years to actresses who campaigned non-stop and proved that the performance is not as important as being on TV, in magazines and every awards show being humble, funny and crying. "The Dude" won best actor, not Jeff Bridges, who was rewarded for his body of work, which is a good body of work.

The Oscars have not always rewarded quality and maybe Hurt Locker was really better than the other nine films, but who knows. But just because a film makes a billion dollars does not make it best either. If money was the key, then Transformers and Twilight would have been there too and we know they were really bad but made boatloads of money.

To everyone who thinks Avatar was miles ahead etc:
FILMS AREN'T ONLY ABOUT THE VISUALS. THEY ARE ABOUT STORIES. ABOUT STORYTELLING. AND AVATAR FAILED THERE!

And please, don't use the b.o. in its defence: then TRASNFORMERS should be an Oscar winner only because audiences adore it!

You're really serious about the title? Really? And the Hurt Locker was pretty 2 dimensional as well.

I would've loved it if The Cove would've been allowed to compete against the ridiculous Hollywood money.

None of the would stand a chance against it.

You're really going to ask that question again, too? Aren't you.

Because you're as shallow as a $10.00 box of Mike & Ike.

Maybe, just maybe, THE HURT LOCKER won because it was the best film of the year. Sometimes the Academy does get it right.

As for it succeeding where other Mideast films failed, well, while some of these films were interesting, none of them came close to the quality of THE HURT LOCKER.

As for the film not expressing a point of view on Iraq, of course it did. There is only one valid point of view on the invasion of Iraq, that it was a major, tragic mistake. The viewer takes that with him or herself to the film and ponders the waste of it all.

Jenn Lee who was a producer on "The Hurt Locker" gives a first hand account to what went down behind the scenes at Voltage and how they got it produced. If you are in the film biz. Watch this. It is funny and insightful. You can see it at a friend of Nic's site... www.filmclosings.com

A great piece.

Come on Avatar was a crock of shite!

My ponies tell me the American Film Institute list was a big deal for the industry movers and shakers. Hurt Locker on the list. Avatar not even on the top ten. This was a real diferentiator.

So are we now at the point where we're completely acknowledging that the Academy Awards are nothing more than a popularity contest? Because if so what is the point of having them? Such and such a movie won because it was well advertised, if only such and such another movie had campaigned more it would have won...

Why should I watch the Oscars? Why should I watch an award thats given out to the company which spent the most promoting their flick?

FYI - Mark Boal who did the screenplay for Hurt Locker also got a story credit for "In The Valley Of Elah." I believe the story was written for Playboy under another title (Death And Dishonor In Iraq).

The Hurt Locker won because of politics. Not cause it was the best movie. It was the best-connected movie this year.

The Academy Awards is a joke. It's all about who you know - rather than picking the actual best movie (or other awards) based on merit.

I will not waste my time with the Academy Awards again.

P-Dub: Yes - Hurt Locker was good. But Avatar was absolutely amazing. There was no contest.

In order to be politically correct and award it to a woman Hollywood will destroy itself. Avatar was by FAR the best film in recent times. Look at the huge audience and the huge sums raked in. What was that other movie??? Can't even remember it's name. Avatar was brilliant in every way but Hollywood is behind the times and is getting left behind. We live in a new age in case Hollywood don't know it.

No merit at all, just luck.

Can you polititards pause your constant obsession for even a few seconds? Really: try. The rest of the world is bored, and politics doesn't have to affect quite everything.

No merit at all, just luck

PURE LUCK

I am ecstatic that Hurt Locker won. I really did not fall for the hype that was Avatar. Sure it was the most technologically advanced, but I felt i had seen the movie so many times; Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves etc. I believe the Academy chose the right film. It is not the paint brush that makes the film it is the painter and his vision that makes a film. Sure Cameron had the world's most advanced paintbrush. But, Bigelow had the best work of art. Kudos to the Academy for picking a great film.

It is unbelievable that Avatar did not make best picture. As far as I am concerned it was politics, politics, politics, smoke and mirrors, and who knows what else. Perhaps David Cameron is not liked in the corriders of the Power Brokers of Hollywood. But I saw Avatar, I felt Avatar, and it was / is a wonderful movie. I am really disappointed in the Oscars to have chosen this failed film as the winner. Really a slap in the face to World viewers. It is obvious that Golden Globes is more in sync with the World while Oscar is blending it's own recipe in a room without windows and they are experiencing movies without televisions or screens, void of sound and scene.

Umm what is going to happen now, The Hurt Locker seriously broke academy rules. It should have been disqualified then and there. It was left in because the academy seriously though Avatar was going to win. http://goldderby.latimes.com/awards_goldderby/2010/02/the-hurt-locker-producer-apology-oscars-academy-awards-news.html

I still don't understand why this film is not going wide or even back in theaters in january, when all the awards started coming. This is not a dvd movie, its a movie that should be experienced in the theater.

Wow... All should be honestly asking, why did the greater lose to the lesser? The Academy (Morlocks) got this one very terribly wrong. The vote will go down as an all-time insult to creativity. Another witless decision that makes no good sense. Sharerific shamey shame shame.

Wow... a woman directed Hurt Locker. A good film - hardly a great film. Double geewiz and then some. People are actually cheering the idea that this film won because it had a female director. What the? What the? Huh? Not because it was great?

Just now saw a commercial for Haiti with Bush and Clinton together. I guess just about anything can happen.

Does this mean Cynthia Swartz is the new Harvey? And if "Twilight" can buy Oscars for Summit, does that mean Marvel will bring Disney a boatload of 'em?

Should Clooney get the award for worst adult male hair after last night?

With every PC proponent and his brother pushing for a female director to be the winner (and more), there is no way Hurt Locker could miss in leftist Hollyweird.

 

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