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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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