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Eugene Hernandez: Megabucks v. Made on a Shoestring or "Avatar" v. "Hurt Locker"

By Eugene Hernandez | Indiewire March 1, 2010 at 4:21AM

Twenty three weeks ago, in a column, I called awards season a marathon. Back in mid-September -- just a few weeks or so into the season -- as I considered ten films I'd watched that might figure prominently at the end of the year. Now we've passed 26th mile marker with under a week to go before Oscar night and it seems as though the race is down to two films, "Avatar" and "The Hurt Locker." But, is there still a chance that "Inglourious Basterds" will sprint to an Oscar night surprise?
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Twenty three weeks ago, in a column, I called awards season a marathon. Back in mid-September -- just a few weeks or so into the season -- as I considered ten films I'd watched that might figure prominently at the end of the year. Now we've passed 26th mile marker with under a week to go before Oscar night and it seems as though the race is down to two films, "Avatar" and "The Hurt Locker." But, is there still a chance that "Inglourious Basterds" will sprint to an Oscar night surprise?

Last night on "60 Minutes," Lesley Stahl characterized the Academy Awards race between ex-spouses Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron as an old fashioned David v. Goliath battle.

"It's megabucks "Avatar' against made-on-a-shoestring 'The Hurt Locker'," Stahl said, profiling Bigelow for the weekly news-magazine show.

Indeed, if "The Hurt Locker" wins, it will be the lowest grossing best picture honoree in decades of Oscar winners. It's earned just over $12.6 million in a theatrical release that wrapped up late last year. "Avatar" on the other hand would be the highest grossing best picture winner. It's made more than $706 million domestically and is still in theaters.

The 5,777 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have until 5 p.m. tomorrow (March 2nd) to vote for this year's Oscars, which features a wider field of ten nominees vying for best picture.

"Avatar," "The Hurt Locker" and "Inglourious Basterds" seem to be slugging it out down to the wire as campaigning nears its conclusion. Last week, "Hurt Locker" producer Nicolas Chartier came under fire for sending an email that dissed "Avatar". He wrote, "if everyone tells one or two of their friends, we will win and not a $500M film, we need independent movies to win like the movies you and I do, so if you believe 'The Hurt Locker' is the best movie of 2010, help us!"

The Academy apparently went after him in the wake of the messages and Chartier apologized in another message, saying, "My email to you was out of line and not in the spirit of the celebration of cinema that the acknowledgement is. I was even more wrong, both personally and professionally, to ask for your help in encouraging others to vote for the film and to comment on another movie...My naivete, ignorance of the rules and plain stupidity as a first time nominee is not an excuse for this behavior and I strongly regret it."

All the while, Harvey Weinstein was boldly predicting that "Inglourious Basterds" would win best picture and Movieline took stock of the situation, claiming an LA Times bias against "The Hurt Locker" and speculating that Harvey Weinstein had a hand in the fracas.

Finally last night, Anne Thompson tweeted: "One Academy voter bumped [Inglourious] 'Basterds' to the bottom of ballot instead of 4 or 5 to protest Harvey's manipulations. Voted before H. Locker email."

Such end of season skirmishes leave a sour taste in the mouths of observers, especially after nearly six months of seasonal speculating. And this weekend, veteran awards prognosticator David Poland spoke out against the viciousness of the past week, taking journalists to task in a column, "We in media have been partners with the savvy publicists and executives in the commoditizing of the awards season. And this doesn’t often bring out the best in us... any of us."

Forgotten among the fighting are the films themselves and the high profile afforded the movies that remain in the awards season mix for months. Awards season lasts forever, but the attention cast on the movies in the mix is invaluable, in fact crucial for films from smaller companies.

For his part, Quentin Tarantino took the high road when asked, on NPR this weekend, if he was engaged in Oscar campaigning.

"Not only is it an honor to be nominated," Tarantino told Kurt Anderson on Studio 360, but the awards attention keeps people aware of a film, which is the best byproduct of such a long season.

"You work forever on a film and you're lucky if it plays in a theater in a competitive way for four weeks," he explained, "But all this stuff makes my movie still alive. My movie still has a heart beat. It's still breathing. It's not behind me, it's beside me right now and that's what so great about all this."

I'll be in Los Angeles this week, taking a final look back at 2009. indieWIRE will have daily dispatches leading up to the Friday's Spirit Awards and the Oscars two days later.

Yes, it's been a marathon awards season that effectively began in earnest back in Telluride over Labor Day Weekend. While we all have our own indie and studio favorites, there are a number terrific movies to celebrate this week. My own tastes tend to skew more towards the modest and lower budgeted, auteur driven indie, specialty and foreign films - not to mention some very good docs.

We'll continue taking a closer look here at indieWIRE before all is said and done on Sunday. In the meantime, maybe I'll even get around to finally watching "District 9" and "The Blind Side."

Eugene Hernandez is the Editor-in-Chief & Co-Founder of indieWIRE and can be reached on his blog, through Facebook or via Twitter: @eug.

PREVIOUS WEEKLY COLUMNS:
02.10.10: Before Berlin Begins, The Ten Best from Sundance 2010 | 01.11.10: The Doctor Is In | 12.21.09: New Year, New Model | 12.14.09: Tracking the Critics | 12.07.09: The Future of Festivals? |11.30.09: Paris, City of Cinema (or, In Bed with Agnes) | 11.23.09: Frederick Wiseman = The Greatest | 11.16.09: For The Love of Movies | 11.09.09: Building Buzz | 11.02.09: I want it like I wrote it. | 10.26.09: “Precious,” $1 Million or $100 Million? | 10.12.09: Critics (still) Matter | 10.05.09: Is There a Doctor in the House? | 09.28.09: The Indie Summit | 09.21.09: The Oscar Marathon | 09.14.09: DIY v. DIWO | 09.08.09: SPC v. IFC | 08.30.09: Saving Cinema | 08.23.09: Nadie Sabe Nada | 08.16.09: Movies, Now More Than Ever | 08.09.09: It Came From The 80s

This article is related to: Features, Academy Awards