Why Oscar didn’t embrace ‘Avatar’

Sun Mar 07, 2010, 10:02 pm EST Yahoo! Movies

By the time “The Hurt Locker” won best picture Sunday night, it seemed almost a foregone conclusion since it previously earned honors from the Producer’s Guild, BAFTA, Broadcast Critics, the National Society and critics groups in New York, L.A. and elsewhere.

But “Hurt Locker” was anything but a sure thing. In a historical context, its win is surprising.

After all, it is the lowest-grossing best picture winner of all time; it was never on more than 535 movie screens; and it beat the highest-grossing movie in modern history, one that has continued to play on thousands of screens for nearly three months. In the era of blockbusters, “Locker” cost a mere $11 million to make compared with the more than $230 million cost of “Avatar.”

To earn its gold, “Hurt Locker” had to break what producer Greg Shapiro called “The Iraq War Curse,” referring to all the movies touching on that conflict that had failed to find an audience. It had to weather attacks in the media and from some in the military who questioned the realism of how it portrayed the bomb removal unit.

The film also drew censure for the behavior of one of its producers, the first to be banned from attending the Academy Awards. And it had to win with backing from Summit Entertainment, a relatively new and small distributor that had never before won an Oscar.

There also is the parallel question of whether “Avatar” and distributor Fox contributed to their own demise in the best picture race.

The sci-fi epic had been critically acclaimed, far more widely seen and was widely heralded for its breakthrough technology. And it boasted the deep pocket backing of a major Hollywood studio.

Could it be explained as the ultimate example of the split personality in Hollywood, where movie choices are mostly driven by the need to make large amounts of money but where the people behind the camera still want to be seen as making art? And was it hurt by attacks from the political right on the movie’s plot, which was seen as a dig on America’s Iraq incursion?

Or was “Avatar’s” Oscar hopes doomed because it was sci-fi, a genre that rarely has been rewarded by Oscar? After all, there are precedents.

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