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Why The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty are Different

I read with interest Sharon Waxman’s latest piece on how billionaire funder Megan Ellison is going to ruin independent film. This is based on the high output/low box office for The Master. Waxman’s theory is that if billionaires can simply write a check  and the film doesn’t earn back what it spent that makes it harder for that filmmaker’s next project to get funding and sets a bad precedent. I’m not sure exactly if I buy the premise here – $40 million for The Master still isn’t $100 million. Could it have been made for $20? I don’t know. I know that the Oscar Best Picture model tends to favor films that are made on the lower budget side which then turn a high profit.  However, I take issue with one thing she wrote, and that was this:

For all its Oscar glory, “The Hurt Locker” grossed $49 million worldwide, and just $17 million domestically. “Zero Dark Thirty” will have to make three times that to recoup its production and marketing costs. It, too, should probably have been made for under $20 million. Then it would have a fighting chance at a profit.

Not so fast. There are two distinct differences between these two films and they shouldn’t be lumped together. I know this because I was very closely observing the trajectory of The Hurt Locker. We have a short memory when it comes to the war in Iraq. That’s because not only have we finally ended it but we’ve long since passed the moment where we have all collectively accepted that it was an unwinable, unnecessary war. But back when The Hurt Locker came out – a movie that was pushed to the beginning of the following year – no one wanted to go see a war movie about a depressing war. It was not a happy time in America. It was an ugly, brutal war pushed through after 9/11 and ended up costing us 4486 US soldiers lives and an untold number of Iraqi women and children. The Hurt Locker captured this dynamic beautifully. It deserves its place in film history as one of the best films ever made, whether or not the Sight & Sound people deign to recognize it, whether or not the Avatar fans want to accept it. If you didn’t see the brilliance in that film you weren’t looking hard enough. But nobody wanted to go see a depressing war movie with no stars in it.

Zero Dark Thirty is a whole different thing. Yes, it’s the Middle East. Yes, it’s Kathryn Bigelow and Marc Boal again. But this time, it’s the successful, dangerous, risky SEAL Team Six that helicoptered into Pakistan to kill Osama Bin Laden. That is what the Bush Administration should have done and didn’t, or couldn’t, or wouldn’t. This is exactly the kind of movie people DO want to see. I don’t know whether they will want to see it internationally, but I know Americans will.   So I would caution Waxman from making that comparison because thematically, these are two very different animals. You know, just saying.

As to billionaire Ellison writing these checks? My deepest gratitude to her for investing in these two films. What a great way to spend her money – investing in art that will last many years to come.

Hat tip: Vinci Smetana