David, meet Goliath, on a worldwide stage at the 82nd annual Academy Awards, with the future of American cinema at stake.
In one corner, James Cameron's sci-fi behemoth Avatar, the all-time box office champion at $2 billion in worldwide ticket sales (and counting), with a reported $237 million budget that made it one of the most expensive movies ever produced.
The opponent: Cameron's ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, with an $11 million budget that might cover Avatar's craft services bill, and a box office take barely above that number.
Crowd-pleasing popcorn flick vs. somber, "important" indie flick.
The throwdown in Tinsel Town.
Nine Oscar nominations for each film were announced Tuesday — with seven rounds of head-to-head competition including the one that really matters, for best picture of 2009.
In an industry thriving on repetition, whichever movie wins the fight ultimately won't be as important as the fallout. The winners announced on March 7 could be seen as a referendum on the present and future state of movies.
A best picture Oscar for Avatar wouldn't bring the death of thoughtful independent films like The Hurt Locker. But it could chase them further underground, buried even deeper in multiplexes by filmmakers following Cameron's techno-template.
Give the Oscar to The Hurt Locker and indie filmmakers everywhere breathe easier, inspired by an underdog winning and more likely to find funding for their projects since an Academy Award seems more possible than ever.
And, yes, another nominee could sneak off with the Oscar, but that doesn't seem likely after the award trends this season.
This is a watershed year for the Oscars and filmmakers who would love to own one, a time when old habits — such as limiting best picture finalists to five films and marginalizing blockbusters to technical categories — are dying hard. Battle lines between art and commerce have never been drawn clearer by the nominations than between this year's overall leaders, Avatar and The Hurt Locker.
For decades, Oscar season has been the time when Hollywood traditionally cares less about profits than prestige. Make money in the summertime and during holidays; make a legacy at the Academy Awards. Cleaning up at the box office was considered enough reward, so blockbusters like Jurassic Park, The Dark Knight and others were overlooked. (Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King were rare exceptions.)
But now, Hollywood's kings and paupers find themselves on a level playing field.
This is what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was aiming for, when deciding to double the best picture nominees to 10 for the first time since 1943. The academy tired of complaints that Oscar voters are stuffy types ignoring what the public likes, or at least makes the effort to see in theaters.
So, like King Solomon in formal wear, the academy split the baby down the middle.
Half of this year's best picture nominees crossed the $100 million box office mark that defines a hit. Three of those nominees — Avatar, The Blind Side and Up — demolished it. Inglourious Basterds made over $120 million during its U.S. release. District 9 finished close behind with $115 million. That's a lot of ticket buyers now personally invested in the Oscars and therefore likelier to watch the telecast.
An uptick in ratings and advertising revenue is exactly what the academy wants, and frankly has needed since viewership peaked in 1998. No coincidence that the ratings record (57 million viewers) was set that year when Titanic dominated the field, on its way to becoming the top-grossing film ever, until Avatar came along.
The other five nominees? Let's just say that The Hurt Locker, An Education, A Serious Man and Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire, without big stars, budgets or special effects, resemble those best picture lists that long ago caused viewers to turn off the Oscars broadcast. (At least Up in the Air has George Clooney's celebrity going for it.)
If those five deserving but underperforming films were all the academy nominated for best picture, TV ratings would go through the floor.
So, the academy's mission to invite Joe and Josephine Moviegoer to the party is accomplished. Now comes the important matter of keeping them there.
Imagine Joe and Josephine tuning in March 7 and hanging on until the final envelope is opened. Let's say Avatar wins. Joe and Josephine go to bed, satisfied that the academy finally came to its senses and rewarded the right movie. They wake up and share the victory with like-minded movie lovers.
But let's imagine that The Hurt Locker is named the best picture of 2009. Joe and Josephine go to bed grumbling about the same old elitist Oscars, the ones that insisted snoozers like No Country for Old Men, Crash and The English Patient were the finest cinematic achievements of their respective years. They wake up and share their disdain with like-minded movie lovers, dashing whatever goodwill the academy built by nominating Avatar, and every other blockbuster.
Could voters be influenced to vote for Avatar (or any other blockbuster nominee), not because of its artistry but because it's good for academy business?
That's a cliffhanger not even a fantasy geek like Cameron wants to imagine.
Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or [email protected]