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The State of the Race – How Did THAT Happen?

And what does it mean? A couple of weeks ago, I wrote on my Facebook page that I thought, in the end, The Hurt Locker would win Picture, Director and Screenplay. But that was before Avatar became Avatanic (coined by reader Loyal and others). The Golden Globes double win, combined with the news of its unstoppable box office, combined with the Academy’s desire to flood the Oscars and the industry with cash seemed to be pointing to Avatar.

Avatar seemed like if it was going to win anything in a cake walk it would have been the PGAs. I suspect, though, there is a lot we don’t know about this story behind the scenes. Personalities could come into play. In the end, though, it might just be down to which film they liked more.’s Scott Feinberg works it out:

At the end of the day, voters tend to vote for who/what they like, not who/what they’re “supposed” to like. That’s why the Academy didn’t nominate “The Dark Knight” for best picture. That’s why “Crash” beat “Brokeback Mountain” to win best picture. That’s why Adrien Brody upset Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis, and why Marion Cotillard beat Julie Christie and Ellen Page, and why Alan Arkin beat Eddie Murphy. And that’s why Bullock has already won so many awards this year — and may yet win the Oscar — for “The Blind Side.”

While I might agree about Alan Arkin and Eddie Murphy – I don’t think it applies to Brody v. Nicholson or Day-Lewis. Marion Cotillard and Adrien Brody won because they COULD NOT BE DENIED. That means, they gave performances that were so hard, so emotionally naked at some point people had to think that awarding the most deserving makes the process worth it. As far as Crash goes, perhaps some “liked” it more than Brokeback Mountain, but we also know that many of them didn’t even watch Brokeback Mountain.¬†¬† And finally, I will have to concede that The Dark Knight just wasn’t their thing.

At any rate, I don’t think Avatar is a “supposed to like” movie – I think it’s a “like” movie with certain prejudices attached: sci-fi, cliched story — and when we’re talking Academy votes (which we have no idea how they will go) there are the actors to contend with.

We must remember that the way the Academy votes is different from other voting bodies. They don’t do the weighted ballot — they do the preferential ballot. We’ll have to wait out The Wrap’s Steve Pond to explain to us how that’s going to work with the winners round.

Avatar had two big problems heading into the PGAs (and I say this as someone who was thoroughly convinced it would win last night): District 9 and Star Trek. That is, the Hurt Locker vote was solid. None of those votes would be stolen by Avatar. But Avatar’s votes could very well have been stolen by District 9 or Star Trek fans. If you go by the producers, you have JJ Abrams, who is successful enough to be a threat. And then there is Up in the Air’s Ivan Reitman. There will be others who vote for the Pixar movie. With ten movies, the vote is potentially split up all over the place. Somehow, The Hurt Locker prevailed.

Lest we forget that good producers are not in it for the money. Let’s face it: Cameron and Landau were not in it for the money. Most of the films in the PGA lineup (save one or two) were passion projects. This should maybe silence, once and for all, that the PGAs are about the money. Clearly they are not.

So now we’ve have had two 10 picture scenarios where The Hurt Locker has triumphed, The PGA and the Critics Choice. Up in the Air triumphed at the National Board of Review with ten. Avatar triumphed at the Globes with five.

Avatar can still win the Oscar, especially if the Oscars are to be the Biggest Reality Show on Television where the public gets a vote. If put to a public choice, we all know Avatar would prevail. For the critics, it’s The Hurt Locker all the way. But the grand upset at the PGAs shows that the film isn’t just popular with the critics.

Before Avatar won the Globes, The Hurt Locker was in the best position a contender can be in: the underdog.¬† At some point it dawned on me that it was the only one that had no stumbling blocks, except its box office. Up in the Air was the first frontrunner, and was, according to the NY Times’ Frank Rich, supposed to “strike a chord” with the American people in troubled times. But it felt like it never did strike that chord. It never rang that bell.¬† This was probably due to the timing of its expansion into more theaters, maybe even its release date. Up in the Air needed to be discovered first by audiences and then embraced by critics and bloggers — not the other way around. Then again, it’s doing pretty well considering all of that. Where it is falling short is at the box office. It’s doing respectable business, but it isn’t Juno.¬† Up in the Air was obliterated by Avatar, which kind of entered the race as the T-Rex and immediately felt like it was TOO BIG TO IGNORE. We still don’t know how this race is going to end up.

There is also the Bigelow factor. I read a NY Times Carpetbagger piece where Melena Ryzik had tracked down a professor who talked about voting and campaigning. He said that one has to have something unique about it in order to triumph over other equal projects. That uniqueness could be that it’s the only film to beat Titanic’s all time record. It could be the first film to win anything that was directed by a woman (Sofia Coppola and Jane Campion got sort of close, but were consoled with a screenplay prize). It could be the only movie that is a traditional Hollywood coming-of-middle-age.¬† It could be the only sci-fi Apartheid movie, the only animated Best Pic nominee, the only comedy, etc.

The Hurt Locker was not seen in theaters. Screwed over by a bad release date, coupled with the mossy coat of despair that “no one was going to see Iraq movies.” It never had a chance. But it’s on Pay-Per-View now and DVD. More people are seeing it. The film has the goods if you’re willing to look for them. More importantly, it has the necessary trifecta: good writing, good acting, good directing. It isn’t weak in any of these areas. That is really what is pushing it through.

Next stop, the DGAs on January 30.