AVATAR vs. HURT LOCKER: The Historical Favourite Question

Scott Macaulay tries to explain the new Oscar voting system and how it works, with quotes from economist Justin Wolfers. Wolfers also provides some follow-explanation here. The use of ranked voting, familiar to those who follow sports MVP voting, means that a movie has the potential to win even if it doesn’t get the most first-place votes.

But that doesn’t really answer the big question: should Avatar or The Hurt Locker be considered the favourite to win? No one really seems to know. Unlike the other big categories, where the winner is almost pre-ordained, Avatar and Locker have sort of been co-favourites for a while; sometimes Avatar seems to have the momentum, and sometimes it’s Locker. (If Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were alive, they would right now be playing Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron in romantic comedy about a divorced couple whose films are competing for the Oscar.) They’re different types of filmmaking, and both of them are types of movies that would, at certain times in Oscar history, be considered the likely winner. The question is not whether history will repeat itself this year, but which moment in history will repeat itself.

I reflexively think of Avatar as the favourite, because it’s a type of production that usually wins Best Picture: the long, huge-budget mega-blockbuster that “saves” the movie industry and gets the award because it’s doo too big to ignore. Winners that fall into this category include Gone With The Wind, The Sound of Music, The Godfather, and Cameron’s own Titanic. These were movies of epic length and scale that became tremendous hits (often after people thought the studio was going to lose its collective shirt on them). They combined massive popular appeal with technical finesse and a tendency to impress movie insiders: most critics didn’t like The Sound of Music, but every studio responded to it by stepping up its production slate of big-budget three-hour musicals. (Sure, this ended in disaster when nearly all these musicals flopped, but if Avatar clones all flop, we won’t know that for a couple of years at least.) Most mega-blockbusters are considered too disreputable to get Best Picture nominations, and even some of the ones that do get Best Picture nominations have a certain lack of cachet: Star Wars was nominated, but George Lucas’s youth and lack of Hollywood cred made it a long shot to win, and the same went for Spielberg with Jaws, Raiders and E.T. (The fact that Coppola lost Best Director for The Godfather may also have been related to a certain resentment of young upstarts.) But Cameron doesn’t have that problem: because he’s already won Oscars, he has the required respectability among Academy voters who normally wouldn’t vote for a sci-fi picture and still think Out of Africa is watchable. So normally, Avatar would be all but guaranteed the Oscar as the culmination of everything it’s done to Save The Movie Industry.

But The Hurt Locker is a type of movie that used to win very rarely, but now wins quite frequently: the low-budget film made by movie-industry insiders. Bigelow has made big-budget movies before, including Point Break, which probably remains her best movie. But she made this film on a small budget and without big-studio backing because it was such an important subject. If you look at the history of the Best Picture Oscars, mega-blockbusters didn’t win that often, but the winners are usually at least decently-budgeted films — the stereotypical Oscar winner is a medium-budget studio production that the studio sees as its “prestige” entry. But in the last few years, we’ve seen more low-budget winners where lots of people took pay cuts: there was Crash, and then there was Slumdog Millionaire (made by a director whose previous movie cost three and a half times more). Not that I would do Hurt Locker the injustice of ranking it with Crash, but it could be that the voters’ love of the storyline — veteran director (or writer, in Haggis’s case) makes low-budget movie about important issue, sells it, triumphs — now overpowers even the ability of a movie as big as Avatar to bludgeon its way to the award.

How the new voting system factors into all this, I’m not sure, and since they won’t tell us who voted which way, we’ll never really know. But it could be that Hurt Locker is the type of movie that will get more second-place votes than Avatar; if voters aren’t completely blown away by Avatar, they’re likely to agree with the people who think it’s just Ferngully meets Pocahontas, and drop it further down on the list. So if Avatar and Locker have a similar number of first-place votes, I’d see the new system as favouring Locker.