Try as I might, I can’t quite get over the fact that The Hurt Locker only made $12.6 million in its theatrical run. I’ve never judged a movie’s quality by its popularity, and I realize that the particular tastes and moviegoing practices of my colleagues and I don’t necessarily correspond with the majority of America’s filmgoing habits, but it does give me pause when I realize that more people saw The Box, I Love You Beth Cooper, New in Town, and Imagine That in theaters last year than Kathryn Bigelow’s 9-time Oscar nominated masterpiece. With ex-Hollywood power couple James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow both nominated for Best Director and having their respective films nominated for Best Picture, next month’s awards battle between Avatar and The Hurt Locker is being presented by some critics and journalists (like on the February 2nd episode of Slate’s Culture Gabfest) in terms of the Hollywood mega-blockbuster vs. the humbled, smaller-scale indie or arthouse film.
This year in which the Best Picture category was problematically expanded to include ten nominated entries rather than five, allowing for typical awards contenders (Up in the Air, Precious) to compete with crowd-pleasers (Avatar, Up, The Blind Side), fan favorites (District 9, Inglourious Basterds) and arthouse picks (A Serious Man, An Education). Where the typical five available slots in recent years have alienated both your typical American audience as well as those of us who frequent the art house (The Reader, for instance, seemed tailor-made for Academy voters and few others), the Academy’s decision to expand it to ten allows for various audiences to feel that their taste in movies are actually reflected in the Kodak theater, but in the meantime illuminates more clearly than any divisive year the extensive differences in types of American moviegoing, quality assessment, and, most importantly, the mostly-arbitrary process distinguishing the perceived differences between the arthouse and the multiplex.
I take issue when The Hurt Locker is lumped along with A Serious Man and An Education as an arthouse flick, for it seems that this designation is arrived at purely because of the film’s disappointing financial intake, and not regarding the film’s style or potential for pleasing audiences. As much as I loved it, A Serious Man clearly has little appeal beyond metropolitan audiences and Coen fans, while a modest film like An Education simply can’t hope competing in a landscape of sexy teenage vampires and giant blue cat-people. But The Hurt Locker is a film that contained potential mass appeal that simply wasn’t realized. Here are the reasons why The Hurt Locker is not an arthouse flick:
1) The distributor: While independently produced, The Hurt Locker was distributed by Summit Entertainment, an indie studio that grew toward major competition (a la Lionsgate) with forgettable genre work (P2, Sorority Row, Sex Drive, Next Day Air), a couple of “bigger” competitors (Knowing, Push) and one major franchise featuring the aforementioned sexy vampires. So even if they aren’t carrying something with Twilight in the title, they now how to send a film through mass release. This isn’t a studio that seems like they can’t afford to make more prints.
2) Movie stars: One could say that The Hurt Locker didn’t possess a larger appeal to mass audiences because of its lack of recognizable stars (if one ignores the Guy Pearce and Ralph Feinnes cameos), but star appeal can’t be attributed as a factor to many of the highest-grossing movies of 2009, from Avatar to The Hangover (and, as I wrote last year, the movie star is an increasingly irrelevant factor in why audiences choose to see certain movies), as it was some other appealing factor that drew hordes of audiences into these movies. And that potential appeal for The Hurt Locker was…
3) Explosions!: Critics and journalists have posited the Avatar/Hurt Locker dichotomy in terms that suggest The Hurt Locker to be an alienating art film in the vein of something like The White Ribbon rather than what it really is: a very good action movie. Bigelow employs the type of exciting, in-the-moment camerawork used in the Greengrass entries of the Bourne movies. The camera (and story) moves, it’s not subtitled, and it’s not in black and white. In other words, it’s not exactly Bergman. And it’s a movie about explosions, the most clichéd identifying characteristic of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking. All the immediate descriptive traits of this film would suggest appeal as popular entertainment, not arthouse ghettoization.
4) It’s a movie about the War on Terror: True, and such subjects have proven to contain limited mass-audience appeal, but Lions for Lambs, Syriana, Body of Lies, Traitor, and The Men Who Stare at Goats all made more money than the far superior and far more entertaining The Hurt Locker.
The issue here is hardly with the film itself, but with the nature and recent practices of limited-run distribution. Limited release films typically work three ways: 1) to keep the release especially limited because the film in question possesses little mass appeal and/or the small distributor can’t afford to roll the film out in many cities simultaneously (The White Ribbon, A Town Called Panic), 2) to test the appeal of a film that may or may not strike a chord with mass audiences based on buzz and reactions emanating from its limited release (Slumdog Millionaire), or 3) to actively build buzz for a highly anticipated film by keeping it from mass audiences in its first few weeks of release (Brokeback Mountain, The Princess and the Frog).
The idea behind such a distribution practice is simple, one inspired by the core ideas behind free market capitalism and, in turn, simple formulas of supply and demand: if American audiences exhibit the desire to see a film, it will be provided. This idea seems to make perfect sense on paper and in selective (albeit extraordinary) examples like the online campaign to expand Paranormal Activity (though whether or not this actually would have changed Paramount’s rollout is up for debate). In reality, and in most cases, the distance between film and audience/consumer desire is not so straight – it’s inundated with twists and turns. The demand for a certain movie isn’t a given, it’s something that must be manufactured through marketing and buzz. More important than good buzz or an effective marketing strategy, however, is simple awareness of a film. If an audience isn’t aware of a film, how do they possess the freedom of choice to demand it? With stronger numerical delineations in theater count between limited and mass theatrical runs and the disappointing box office of potentially appealing movies from The Hurt Locker to Moon to Gentlemen Broncos (not a good movie, but easily one that could’ve made more money if handled differently), it seems that distributors are deciding the fates of such films long before audiences even have a chance to demand it.
I’m not saying it would be a smart idea to ever give something like The White Ribbon a wide release because of some idealized fantasy I have that the average moviegoer is more discerning than distributors and marketers make them out to be, but we’re in trouble when an action movie like The Hurt Locker or an original sci-fi flick like Moon are relegated to the arthouse with little chance of competing elsewhere. Did either of these films ever have the slightest chance to financially compete with Avatar or The Blind Side? Hardly, but creative, original genre movies like these certainly had the potential to reach and affect audiences far outside your metropolitan movie theater in the same way that the hardly-conventional Inglourious Basterds and District 9 actually did reach such an audience last year.
To label any unique but still accessible genre work as ‘arthouse’ does two harmful things to the rest of the cinematic landscape: 1) it relegates ‘mainstream cinema’ and multiplex fare to purely big-budget, high-profile filmmaking (so only what is often the most repetitive and predictable type of filmmaking can be considered mainstream), and 2) it leaves no real place for true arthouse fare, uncommercial films that truly challenge conventions. Journalists, critics, and various members of the Academy can consider The Hurt Locker and A Serious Man “arthouse” in a way that prevents serious awards consideration for true arthouse filmmaking like Hunger or Antichrist, both of which feature Oscar-nomination-worthy performances at their center. They’re rendered invisible by an ongoing confusion of the small with the arthouse. Finally, the labeling of a film like The Hurt Locker as arthouse furthers the cycle of problems with limited distribution, thereby preventing further unique-but-accessible films to ever be seen as marketable and potentially competitive through an initial wide release. This limits choice for the average moviegoer, limits awareness of the options and freedoms typically thought of as necessary for supply and demand to work, and limits the potential for studios – big and small, independent and incorporated – to dare to test a ‘smaller’ film’s performance against other wide, big-budget releases, further narrowing the variety at your local multiplex. I guess that’s really why it’s called a limited release.