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

27 Comments on this Post

  1. joeyhegele

    I just hope Zero Dark Thirty does not get sucked into partisan politics. I fear the Red State folk who should be the target audience of this film will refuse to buy a ticket because they some how think it helps President Obama. I know the Republicans are already attacking Obama for sharing government information with Kathryn Bigelow to make this film. I want folks to just watch the movie and judge it based on its merits, not whether you hate Obama.

    Also, if I was a billionaire, I would spend my money on funding charities and independent films. I can not think of a better use of money than that.

  2. In regards to HL and ZD30 I completely agree with you. But Waxman, whom I always disagree with, is right on the money when it comes to these high budget art films. The less they succeed at the b.o. the more difficult it becomes for others to get funding. Hollywood is praying for these movies to fail because they don’t support their blockbuster mentality. When they succeed its “freak accident” which is essentially bullshit because a good movie will always find a way to reach an audience. The Master IMO had no business costing that much. You could’ve easily done it for half the price — 70mm and all the trappings. The less ammunition you give to the suits the better the chance for new forms of narratives to succeed. That’s why I’m praying to the high heavens Cloud Atlas kills at the box office. That movie tanks then Transformers 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 will dominate screens and then we will really be in the shit house. Hate to admit it but Waxman gets it right.

  3. I mean we’re all ready in the shitter, but it’ll be much more difficult or close to near impossible to get out of it.

  4. Kevin Klawitter

    Call be naive, but I always thought art was about… well… ART. Not profit. If Megan Ellison wants to find these movies, I’m willing to bet she’s more interested in what’s going to be in the screen than what’s in her pocketbook.

    As far as a bad precedent goes, directors will almost always be able to find work if they want it. Remember, Katheryn Bigelow was coming off of TWO major flops (“Strange Days” and “K-19: the Widowmaker”) when she directed “The Hurt Locker”. Sometimes they’ll have to rebuild good will through TV or commercials (as Bigelow did), but they’re never going to be completely hung out to dry.

  5. “The Master IMO had no business costing that much. You could’ve easily done it for half the price — 70mm and all the trappings. ”

    Evidence to support such claim?

  6. Ramblings …

    I’m conflicted. While it’s still to early to judge Annapurna, I do wonder about things. Like, is her business model self-sustaining? What if it’s not? Time will tell. In the meanwhile, I admire her ambition. But, what does it say about the state of the business, when we as an audience have to rely on a fortunate billionaire heiress to keep feeding us product that we want to see? I’m not disparaging her in anyway. Quite the contrary, like many, I’m thankful that she exists. And, the “we” and “many” in this case seems to be diminishing in numbers. Is it a case of, “If you build it, they will come?” It feels like charity, in the meanwhile. Does that make sense?

    I’m such a cynic. I wish I had more faith in American mainstream audiences. An auteur like Scorsese makes a beautiful, family-friendly film like Hugo and its domestic take ends up being half of its reported budget. Even Steven Spielberg with a known property War Horse at his tear-jerking schmaltziest (I balled my head off), barely made his budget back with his domestic numbers.

    I forget about years like 2010, though, when Black Swan (loved), True Grit, and The King’s Speech (didn’t really care for) were these gangbuster success stories, as well as the rest of the seven BP nominees to lesser degrees. Even 127 Hours’ international take was respectable, but let’s not forget P&A costs. Would it have done better domestically had it been released in December? Would There Will Be Blood done worse had it had an early Fall release like The Master?

    It seems that mature taste in film is generally dependent on the Oscar cycle (i.e. the closer to December 31st you can time your release, the better). Mainstream America has Michael Bay and Tyler Perry. We have Megan Ellison. And Harvey Weinstein. I wasn’t a fan of King’s Speech and, while I enjoyed The Artist, I can’t say it’s one of those films I can watch over and over again. Weinstein is great at finding mix of safe and more daring cinema. It sounds like Ellison will be turning to those Terminator properties sooner than later.

  7. i’m not sure how Zero Dark Thirty will do at the box office… but from a marketing standpoint- it has one of the worst movie posters in the history of the world… i was at my local movie theater here this week and walked passed the poster… it simply had “zero” “dark” and “thirty” completely crossed out- totally unreadable… i’m movie-obsessed so i knew what movie it was for- but i bet less than 1% of the people that walk by know… just idiotic.

  8. I wondered myself why someone would give Paul Thomas Anderson $40 million for a very noncommercial project especially when he isn’t a big box office draw. His biggest commercial success to date There will Be Blood only made $40 million domestic. It seems like the budget should have been half that. And I have to wonder as another poster pointed out what Megan Ellison’s business model is, she can’t be Medici giving money to artists at some point her films have to turn a profit. She either needs to work with smaller budgets or produce more commercial projects.
    As for Zero Dark Thirty countless war on terror movies including The Hurt Locker have bombed show that the movie going public doesn’t want to see movies about the war on terror. And count the title which doesn’t give any indication what the movie is about and as someone pointed out a lousy poster means nobody knows what it is. And the release date December 19, six days before Christmas. In the crowded holiday movie season nobody is going to want to see a movie about terrorism even if it has a happy ending(We get Bin Laden). You don’t have to be an expert to know how this movie will do at the box office.

  9. rufussondheim

    If Zero Dark Thirty is a great movie and makes critics lists and gets nominated for awards, it will be well known (personally, I think the mainstream news organizations will give it a ton of free publicity as well) and people will want to go see it.

    It may not be the number 1 film the week it comes out, but it should sustain a healthy box office throughout awards season if it’s good.

  10. Mohammed

    Years after The Hurt Locker took the Oscars I’m still convinced that the film was in no way deserving of the awards nor that it’s even as good as Black Hawk Down. To put it in perspective, the latter is a travesty in my eyes as a Somali. Yet I rate it higher, and I’m sure most do in regards to war-movies, let alone the greatest movies of all time.

    The first likely reason(s) I can think of that the film and the director won is simply because she is a woman. The second is that the Academy didn’t want to inflate Cameron’s ego by giving him a host of awards on top of the billions that the movie made.

    Between The Hurt Locker and Avatar there is no doubt in my mind that the latter deserved the Best Picture Oscar. KB is also in my opinion one of the worst female directors out there. Give me Campion, Bier or Denis. If anything, White Material deserved to win the award that year compared to both THL and Avatar.

  11. Wow you’d think Mohamed was comparing bigelow to Michael bay or Joel Schumacher. Them are some bad directors.

  12. Al Capone

    Sharon Waxman totally disregards DVD, Blu-Ray, VOD & ancillary revenues, where most awards contenders will really make their money. Outside of tentpoles, Tyler Perry, and Paranormal Activity, movies aren’t meant to break even at the box office anymore.

  13. Five Easy Pieces

    Waxman’s article is poorly researched. She has no actual numbers or stats to back up her vague theory that these particular films are overpriced — or that the budgets will make it harder for future films to be financed. It’s lazy and irresponsible reporting.

  14. AlecFPrice

    I’m just grateful someone is getting these films made – don’t see why Megan Ellison is taking any flak at all. We can only hope for more benefactors to come forward and take the reins that Hollywood has let go of to pursue franchises.

    People also would do well to remember that the box-office for these films is not what it ultimately comes down to. A lot of viewers discovered THE HURT LOCKER on DVD/Blu-ray – just as they have a number of PTA’s films. Work of this nature has a far longer shelf-life than so much disposable mainstream fare and generate revenue over a longer period of time than merely their opening weekend.

  15. Absolutely, what AlecFPrice says. Commerce shoots for the opening weekend, art for shelf-life. I wouldn’t trade the The Hurt Locker for the top five moneymakers that year.

    Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the topic is something that the average joe might not want to see because joe wants what he/she knows, and I can guarantee we don’t learn anything about the human experience from what joe already knows.

    Zero Dark Thirty probably won’t be a hit – so what?

    (Good recommendations, btw)

  16. The Iraq War isn’t over, it’s just not reported on as much, and we’ve switched from soldiers to mercenaries. The Hurt Locker wasn’t the best movie of ’09 (that would be Basterds), and the zeitgeist-y movie of that year was Up in The Air, not THL. Bigelow’s movie has nothing on Scott’s BHD, or Body of Lies.

    Cinesnatch: I’d take Bay over Bigelow. Look over her resume. It’s mostly garbage outside of Point Break.

  17. Right, this makes sense. Megan Ellison is ruining the independent movie industry by funding PTA and Bigelow movies, not the major studios who shut the doors on their arthouse labels and are actively trying to pare down their lineup each year to about 6 or 7 blockbuster remake/reboot/rehash tentpole movies (in 3D) that will eat up 3 or 4 screens each at the multiplex. Not the production companies that would rather hear a pitch for a Smurfs sequel than an original idea. And certainly not the viewing public that eats the shit the bigwigs feed them willingly which gives the studios license to pump out more and more crap that drowns out the smaller stuff. Nope, its all this one lady’s fault for producing a few quality movies this year and allowing a few talented auteurs to make their movies the way they want to. Shame on her.

  18. “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.”

    Heh heh heh…step away from the funny-looking kool aid, Sasha. One of the “best films ever made” doesn’t damage the Academy’s cred with the general moviegoing public. It instead convinces them that the deck is hopelessly stacked against critical/audience blockbusters and far too much in favor of indie stuff.

  19. I don’t know Sasha I think I have to agree with Sharon Waxman on this. Have you seen the trailer for ZD30? You see soliders, CIA agents, military gear, middle-east. To the public it looks like more of the same, there is Middle East fatigue and fatigue about the war on terror. How many people really care at this point to find out more about the death of Bin Laden than they have gotten from CNN? How many are willing to PAY for it? Maybe in 20 years when there is more distance from the war curiosity will rise like happened with WWI, WWII, Vietnam, etc.

    I really don’t see ZD30 doing much more at the box office than THL did. THL also had glowing reviews and WON BP but still got no interest from wider audiences. ZD30 will be competing with more favorable entertaining films like The Hobbit and Les Miserables.

  20. How many people really care at this point to find out more about the death of Bin Laden than they have gotten from CNN?

    How many people watch movies as a supplement to CNN? Are people going to see Lincoln just to learn more about the Emancipation Proclamation? Movies are more than news updates and history lessons.

  21. “when there is more distance from the war curiosity will rise like happened with WWI, WWII, Vietnam”

    What complete nonsense!

    World War II ended in 1945 and we had Best Years of our lives – 1946 (1 year later), Sands of Iwo Jima – 1949 (4 years later). Over 75 films were made between 1950 and 1954 with a WWII theme.

    All Quiet on the western front – 1930 (12 years after WWI)

    Vietnam war ended in 1975 – witihin 5 years, we had The Deer Hunter, Coming Home and Apocalypse Now.

    We’re only 11 ½ years away from 9/11, without much to show for it, especially if you factor in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Audiences have become jaded, self-entitled and unappreciative.

  22. World War II ended in 1945 and we had Best Years of our lives – 1946 (1 year later)…”

    Mrs. Miniver and Colonel Blimp say, “Hey! Look over here!

  23. Thanks for the back-up, Ryan.

    There were plenty of WW I films, too, but All Quiet… is the best known (and Wings) and the bloody book wasn’t written until 1929 and was snapped up for a movie.

    The point is, the “it’s too soon” argument is bogus. It translates to “we don’t really care, give me fun instead.”

  24. “How many people watch movies as a supplement to CNN?” Not many is my point. Interest regarding historical events in the entertainment arena as a form of escapism picks up decades down the line. None of us were alive during Lincoln’s time so our curiosity to see him speaking, moving and being a president is of high interest. The same won’t happen if you make a historical President Obama film. We can see the man daily in our T.V. screens. The events in Argo took place decades ago many of us weren’t even alive or are hazy about that history so again interest would be higher for that film than Osama Bin Laden. How many films about the current wars or the war on terror have been box office hits? If ZD30 is a box-office hit I will be delighted to let everyone on here know how wrong I was but there is just no proof that the public has any appetite for a film set during the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I’m not talking about Oscar pundits or film geeks on the internet but the general public.

  25. “there is just no proof that the public has any appetite for a film set during the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I’m not talking about Oscar pundits or film geeks on the internet …”

    …or movie lovers in general.

    To hell with anyone who’s just interested in high-quality filmmaking, right? If a movie can’t earn $100mil, what good is it? What’s the point of making a movie if it’s not going to make some rich person richer, yeah?

    Let’s hope Megan Ellison has learned her lesson. She’ll be smart to back somebody like Adam Sandler from now on. Otherwise, she’ll wake up some day and be broke.

    Charles Foster Kane: You’re right, I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars *next* year. You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I’ll have to close this place in… 60 years.

    If Megan Ellison loses $100 million a year backing America’s greatest directors, she’ll blow through her family’s $40 billion in 400 years. Why is this a problem for anybody?

  26. Its important to point out that with 30 million dollars in foreign presales already and a budget of 40-45 million, ZD30 is well on its way to being profitable while its still in theaters. Lawless was already a huge success for Annapurna earlier this year when foreign box office is factored in. And The Master will certainly turn a profit once it hits VOD and DVD/Blu Ray (not to mention television sales). I don’t know how much they spent on Killing Them Softly, but it can’t be more than 30-40 million and its probably more like 20. My guess is they can make that money back as well. Waxman’s article is grossly underestimating the ability of this company to make their money back and then some. But we’ll see who has the last laugh.

  27. Waxman’s premise is way off, major studios aren’t going to green light independents, and the days of major studios putting out prestige films next to their blockbusters have been dying, pretty much going back to the ascendancy of Sundance.
    On paper, Zero Dark Thirty should absolutely be a movie any major studio would want, regardless of Hurt Locker’s box office take. THL and the buzz around it created a significant star, launching Jeremy Renner to headliner status. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s Oscar wins gave them buzz in Hollywood. Add to that the obvious marketability of the movie, particularly once Bin Laden was killed and the fact this was already in production and able to capitalize faster than anything short of a slapdash TV movie job, and ZD30 looks more like a sure bet than a risky investment.
    Studios aren’t interested in green lighting prestige projects, they’d rather have independent film makers scrape up funding and put their work on the festival circuit. Then, they can swoop in and purchase distribution rights for a film they know works (because they’ve seen it, usually with an audience reacting positively) rather than taking a chance on a project based on a script or treatment.
    Since the major studios are largely uninterested in pouring millions into a film without a clear guarantee of return, those building funding outside the studio system don’t have Warner Brothers money, so they either have to find a way to make really cheap films look professional or find funders like Megan Ellison who are willing to pour serious money in.

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