By March 7, when the Oscars are handed out, 'Avatar' will have expanded its box office records by scores of millions of dollars; by contrast, 'The Hurt Locker' was played out in mid-November with a dismal $16.1 million in worldwide ticket sales. And it's been available on DVD and Video on Demand since Jan. 12. Not since Goliath looked down at David in the Valley of Elah has the favorite in a fight faced a sassier undersized opponent than James Cameron's 'Avatar' against his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow's 'The Hurt Locker' in the battle for the 2010 Best Picture Oscar.
By March 7, when the Oscars are handed out, 'Avatar' will have expanded its box office records by scores of millions of dollars; by contrast, 'The Hurt Locker' was played out in mid-November with a dismal $16.1 million in worldwide ticket sales. And it's been available on DVD and Video on Demand since Jan. 12.
Back to our Biblical parallel: Here's David, with a slingshot and a few stones, looking up at the Philistine Goliath and telling the armored, shield-carrying behemoth that he doesn't stand a chance. "I will strike you down and cut off your head," David said, "and I will give the dead bodies [of the Philistines] this day to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth."
I don't know how much anger there was in the Cameron/Bigelow divorce -- at public events, she hasn't shown any of David's attitude -- but fans of her movie won't be happy until she's clutching her ex's head in one hand and the Oscar in the other. If we're watching a repeat of the David/Goliath fight, what would a win here mean for the little guy?
A week ago, 'Avatar's' Oscar looked safe. A movie that promises both to revolutionize and enrich your industry is hard to deny. But on Saturday night, that's just what Cameron and Bigelow's peers in the Directors Guild of America did in giving the 'Hurt Locker' director its highest award. And on Tuesday, when the two films tied for the most Oscar nominations with nine, all bets were off.
In fact, 'The Hurt Locker' now has a slight advantage, having received nominations in categories that are usually reliable indicators of overall voter preference. 'Avatar' was shut out on both the acting and writing ballots, while 'The Hurt Locker's' star Jeremy Renner is up for Best Actor, and Mark Boals' script is up for Best Original Screenplay. The actors and writers make up the largest voting block in the Academy.
In the old studio days, this match-up would have been a no-brainer for Oscar voters, all of whom were on contract to one of the studios and under pressure to vote for their studios' nominees. Employee loyalty is the only explanation for Paramount's 'The Greatest Show on Earth''s winning the 1952 Oscar over its vastly superior rivals 'High Noon' and John Ford's 'The Quiet Man.'
But since the studios broke up and the indie movement began its wild ride through the movie marketplace, Oscar voters have become more willing to vote for pictures made outside "Hollywood." Many of the movies nominated for the Independent Spirit Award in the last 20 years have received Oscar nominations, as well; and in 1986, Oliver Stone's Indie Spirit winner 'Platoon' doubled up with the Best Picture Oscar.
So, the light-years gap between the earnings of 'Avatar' and 'The Hurt Locker' won't necessarily hold Bigelow's film back. In fact, the desire of Oscar voters to see their awards make money for the winners should give 'The Hurt Locker' another leg up. 'Avatar' may make a few more millions from an Oscar bump, but it would be like Warren Buffet winning a scratch-off lottery. 'The Hurt Locker' really, really needs some help.
Bigelow's film cost an estimated $11 million to make, a bargain given its quality production values. But despite rave reviews across the country, it never made it into more than 800 theaters and grossed just $12.6 million in the U.S. and Canada. Overseas, it made barely a ripple, selling a paltry $3.4 million worth of tickets.
Second-guessers will say 'Hurt Locker's' distributor made a mistake opening the movie in limited release in June instead of waiting until the late fall, when critics awards (it has won 18 of them) and Oscar buzz would have helped sell it. Imagine if it had been playing in 25 to 50 theaters until this week, and then went wide with its nine Oscar nominations. But no one knew last June that 'The Hurt Locker' would go on to become an Oscar favorite.
Anyway, that didn't happen, and Summit recovered somewhat by releasing 'The Hurt Locker' on DVD last month. According to a Summit official, 'The Hurt Locker' was the No. 1 DVD release during its first week and it has sold nearly a half-million copies. During its third week in DVD and Video on Demand, there were three million transactions. After Tuesday's nominations blitz, Summit expects to get a lot more DVD orders.
From the "very long wait" notice for 'The Hurt Locker' at Netflix, the demand for it is obviously very high. (Note to Netflix: Buy more DVDs of all new releases. The "very long wait" notice is why I'm canceling my subscription.) Though Summit is re-releasing the movie in about 100 theaters around the country, a wider release is not feasible because of its availability elsewhere.
But if you're lucky enough to be near one of those theaters, you should see it on the big screen. Though the subject matter is rough, 'The Hurt Locker' is tense, suspenseful and -- in classic war movie fashion -- extremely entertaining. Wherever you see it, do it before March 7. Otherwise, you may miss a drama of Biblical proportions.