Kathryn vs. James: The Underdog Story of how The Hurt Locker won the Oscar for Best Picture over Avatar

It’s March 7, 2010, the night of the 82nd Academy Awards. Two former lovers, James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow who had been married from 1989 to 1991, were both the favorites to win the Oscar for Best Director and Best Picture. Up to this point, the award season for 2009 films has been split between James Cameron’s Avatar and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, two films that could not be any different. Tonight was the most important awards show of the season. Tonight we would learn whether the Academy was going to award Avatar for all of its technical and financial achievements or if The Hurt Locker would become the lowest-grossing film of all time to win the Best Picture Oscar.

PrintTo begin our examination of these two movies, let’s look at the numbers. The production of Avatar officially cost somewhere between $237 million or the highest estimate being $310 million. Using the old Hollywood rule of spending half the budget on promotion, you could estimate the total cost as being around $500 million. The Hurt Locker, on the other hand, had an official budget between $11 million and $15 million with the total estimate to be around $22 million dollars. While both films can be considered financial successes, Avatar’s return of over $2.2 billion compared to The Hurt Locker’s return of $27 million shows that even though both films were profitable, The Hurt Locker only earned 1.2% of the money that Avatar earned.

hurtlockerThe Hurt Locker is a modern cinematic classic that deserves to be ranked among the best war films of all time. It is the only film to capture the true horrors of the post-9/11 wars that America has waged. The Hurt Locker puts the audience directly into the line of fire by focusing on arguably the most dangerous job in the US Military: Army Bomb Disposal. What separates The Hurt Locker from other war films is in how human the main characters are. We see these soldiers overcome fear and resist every instinct to just run away. Kathryn Bigelow’s film is about the people involved in the war, not the grand political theater behind them.

Behind the scenes, the most fascinating thing about The Hurt Locker has to be its budget. Kathryn Bigelow had to make her film with just around $10-15 million that she financed independently. Stylistically, Bigelow filmed the entire movie using handheld cameras. This gave the film an incredibly intimate and raw feeling much like Paul Greengrass’s handheld work on the Bourne films. The film had to be careful with its action scenes and really had to make them hit as hard as possible, because there wasn’t another option. You may be asking yourself, why did Bigelow have to use such a small budget? Well, the simple answer is that she was in Hollywood Director’s jail, which is a turn of phrase for a filmmaker that isn’t being given Hollywood jobs due to some form of dispute with the Hollywood system. In Bigelow’s case, it was losing a lot of money on her last film K-19: The Widowmaker. This made The Hurt Locker a “do-or-die” film for Bigelow as it represented what could likely have been her final film.

Avatar on the other hand was a true example of modern studio largesse. It has an enormous budget, was shot entirely on soundstages using green screen and motion capture (mo-cap) technology, focused not on our world but a completely foreign one with its own unique flora and fauna, and told a story that can only be described as trite and commonplace, if not borderline offensive.

Avatar changed how films were displayed for the last decade, but surprisingly had little influence on how films have been made. Upon release, everyone was blown away by Avatar’s visuals and use of stereoscopic filmmaking. By revitalizing the 3D film using modern technology, James Cameron started the flood of 3D movies that is (finally) starting to slow down. What Hollywood forgot, however, and what has led to the near-death of the 3D format (again), is that Avatar was shot in 3D. The majority of films that have been released in 3D since 2009 are “post-converted” which means that the film was shot as a traditional 2D movie and then a company that specializes in 3D conversion, added all of the depth. But why go through the trouble of post-converting a movie into 3D? Because for a small investment (we’re still talking millions here), Hollywood can make movie theaters charge $3 more per ticket. As long as that extra $3 per ticket generated more money than the cost of post-conversion, Hollywood was happy.

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At the time of Avatar’s release, there was concern among certain groups that the motion-capture technology utilized by the movie represented the future of filmmaking. Mo-cap is the process that Avatar used to create the Na’vi in the film. Mo-cap works by having an actor (or actress) wear a special suit and headgear that has multiple sensors to record the actors movements. However, since Avatar’s release, only a handful of films (the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy, Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 1 and 2, and The Jungle Book to name the most prominent examples) have used anywhere near the amount of mo-cap as used in Avatar and you would be hard pressed to say that their use of mo-cap was not tasteful or instrumental in the success of those films. In other words, mo-cap hasn’t replaced actors, it’s just given filmmakers another tool they can use to create entertainment never before possible.

The main criticism about Avatar upon its release was its story. An indigenous people have something that a large corporation wants, and the corporation will stop at nothing to retrieve it. The corporation’s plan is undone when one of its own employees spends time with the indigenous people, falls in love with a member of the indigenous tribe, learns their ways, and vows to end the slaughter of the indigenous people. If that sounds familiar, it should. That story description, with some minor tweaking, could be used to describe Dances with Wolves, Dune, Ferngully, Avatar etc. The offensive part of it, is that it is clearly a “white savior” narrative, which is a cinematic trope wherein a white character rescues people of color from their plight (you can read the Wikipedia entry for more information), Many have argued that James Cameron uses simple stories in his movies because it allows him to explore more high-concept visuals without forcing the audience to process a high-concept story. That argument definitely holds water when you look back through his filmography.

James Cameron has had arguably the most profitable career of any modern director. If you compare Cameron to Steven Spielberg (arguably the most important director of the modern era). Spielberg has directed 31 movies in his career, and his films have made approximately $9.4 billion and Cameron’s have made approximately $6.2 billion with only 7 films. Compare that to Kathryn Bigelow whose biggest film at that time was Point Break which made $83.5 million and her last Hollywood movie, K-19: The Widowmaker actually lost money.

So now the big question is why give the best director Oscar to someone whose film was made outside of the Hollywood system and was completely unreliable inside of the system when it came to delivering profitable films when James Cameron was Mr. Hollywood and did nothing but deliver profitable hits to his studios? I believe that the true reason for her win is more sinister in nature: Hollywood wanted to make a statement against James Cameron. Let’s get the controversy out of the way first. One of the producers of The Hurt Locker, Nicolas Chartier, sent multiple emails urging academy members to vote for his movie for best picture and “not a $500 million film”, which is an obvious reference to Avatar. These emails violated the academy’s rule against sending mailings that “attempt to promote any film or achievement by casting a negative light on a competing film or achievement.” We will never know the true impact that these emails had on the Best Picture vote, but there’s a good chance that several people were swayed by the inappropriate correspondence.

Second, you need to remember that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is made up of 17 different sections of Hollywood people, with the largest section being Actors/Actresses. James Cameron has a history of being very difficult to work with as an actor or actress, so it’s unlikely that actors and actresses would vote for Mr. Cameron. Do you remember how actors viewed Avatar as a threat because of the mo-cap technology? Actors are not going to vote for a movie that could start a trend where they found themselves out of work. All of that plus the poor performance of Sam Worthington in Avatar significantly hurt Cameron’s chances at winning Best Director. When you compare his performance to the incredibly nuanced performance that Bigelow got out of Jeremy Renner, it’s not hard to see why she won the Oscar.

Third, the academy is known for being hesitant to reward science fiction films. For whatever reason, the academy will not give a Best Picture Oscar to a science fiction movie. Not even Gravity could break this curse. It seems strange to think that the academy would see themselves above awarding a specific genre of film, but it’s absolutely true.

Fourth, Avatar is a pure Hollywood spectacle, and the Academy likes to vote hipper than they actually are. The Hurt Locker was brilliantly directed by Kathryn Bigelow out of necessity, while James Cameron directed Avatar like any other blockbuster. This separation is what gave Bigelow part of the push to win the award.

Finally, Hollywood loves making historical events out of their award shows, especially in years that don’t have any historical significance. Hollywood saw awarding Best Picture to a female directed film as a way to drum up interest in that year’s award show. You want to make sure that the news is obsessed with the Oscars the day after the event? Shut out an insanely popular film and instead make history by giving an Oscar to a female director and a female directed film for the first time. Obviously, it worked since we’re still talking about it over seven years later.

cameron bigelowRegardless of the reasons, the 82nd Academy Awards decided to reward Kathryn Bigelow and The Hurt Locker over James Cameron and Avatar creating a truly remarkable modern Hollywood David vs. Goliath tale. Unfortunately, Kathryn Bigelow breaking the glass ceiling for female directors has not led to more female directors receiving awards. It also hasn’t led to Hollywood employing more female directors. Females represent approximately 9% of the directors in Hollywood, and the few that do get employed have to constantly fight to receive similar opportunities that are given to their male counterparts. The wind may be changing on this after the success of Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, but only time will tell. The Hurt Locker might be the first film to earn a female director an Oscar, but other female directors have to continue their fight for equality in this male dominated career. At the end of the day, The Hurt Locker beat Avatar, but it wasn’t enough to beat the Hollywood system that continues to undervalue female viewpoints in film.

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