Word of Mouth Goes Far at 82nd Academy Awards: Why The Hurt Locker's Win is Truly Groundbreaking

The 82nd Academy Awards were a referendum on what Oscar voters value, versus what moviegoers are willing to pay for.

Director Kathryn Bigelow accepts her Oscar for The Hurt Locker
Director Kathryn Bigelow accepts her Oscar for The Hurt Locker

The headline will be Kathryn Bigelow's stunning, groundbreaking achievement as the first woman to win Best Picture. But considering the Academy's concerted effort to expand the audience for this year's awards by opening up the Best Picture category to 10 nominees, maybe this broken record is more significant: The Hurt Locker is the lowest grossing movie in decades (possibly ever, if adjusted for inflation) to win Best Picture.

The Hurt Locker
The Hurt Locker

Two nights before the Oscars, I attended the Independent Spirit Awards, a less formal ceremony designed to honor lesser-known films, thereby bolstering the independent film community in the face of the Academy's total indifference to non-studio film. As the old joke goes, those who win at the Spirits are doomed to lose the same weekend at the Oscars. This year, it didn't quite go that way: winners at both events included Jeff Bridges, Mo'Nique and, maybe most surprisingly, Precious screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher.


A low point of Friday night's show was a bit by Will Arnett and Ed Helms, who presented the John Cassavetes Award for best feature made for less than half a million dollars by way of an unfunny gag essentially presuming that the audience has no idea who John Cassavetes is--and doesn't care. In contrast, Adam Shankman's Oscar telecast included multiple self-congratulatory educational montages--This is Why Short Films Are Important! Morgan Freeman Explains Why We Give Awards For Sound!--while curiously omitting traditional nods to Hollywood history. Not only were lifetime achievement honorees Lauren Bacall and Roger Corman awarded at a separate ceremony, but there were no cutaways on the telecast to familiar old timers like Mickey Rooney and Jack Nicholson; were they not there? Or just not as hot right now as Taylor Lautner? Both shows assumed a total lack of basic film knowledge on the part of their audiences; the difference is that the Hollywood show condescendingly took it upon itself to rectify that perceived ignorance, while the indie show, put on a by a non-profit organization devoted to showcasing low budget film, told us it didn't matter.

Hell, this world is changing so fast that maybe it doesn't really matter. In a time when the definition of "indie film" seems more tenuous than ever, what does it mean that a film executive produced by Oprah, that grossed $47 million, won the "indie" award, while a movie made outside the studio system and sold to an upstart distributor (Summit, who funded Bigelow's Oscar campaign on Twilight revenues), one that eventually grossed just $14 million, nailed the "mainstream" high score. The irony is, in 2009, after its Toronto Film Festival premiere but before its theatrical release, The Hurt Locker was nominated for two Spirit awards, and lost. It was not the best indie film of last year, but it is amongst the best mass market films of this year ... ?

It won't make it into the record books, but the truly groundbreaking thing about Hurt Locker's win is the fact that it happened without the help of a savvy, Slumdog Millionaire-esque, drown-out-the-competition marketing campaign paid for by a distributor -- Summit saved its energy and resources for the Twilight franchise, and didn't seem to know what it had with Hurt Locker until very late in the game. Locker was able to premiere at a festival in in the fall of 2008, open theatrically in the summer of 2009 and ride common goodwill all the way to the Oscars in 2010, and ultimately beat the most expensively produced and highest grossing film of all time. This is a total testament to the power of word of mouth, whether spread online or in real life.

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