As the Oscars approach, the showdown between Avatar and The Hurt Locker has tapped into a wider issue

The Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday appears to have turned into a showdown between two very different films – Avatar and The Hurt Locker. One is a 20th Century Fox blockbuster which cost around $280m to produce, the other an independently financed labour of love which cost under $15m, a budget that was patched together through producer equity, hedge fund investment and pre-sales. The former has grossed over $710m in the domestic market, the latter $12.7m.    
Even though there are many other admired films in the mix –   Inglourious Basterds, Precious, Up In The Air et al – awards to date have favoured these two, while the media has lapped up a David versus Goliath battle which is even spicier since the films’ directors used to be married.
But if the media has constructed an artificial head-to-head between the two films for the sake of headlines, it has accidentally tapped into a much wider issue in English-language cinema of which these two films are emblematic.
In the left corner is a film out of reach of independent film-makers, a lavish spectacle in stunning 3D images which has given new heft to the term “event”. It is pure fantasy dominated by special effects, a film which could only be made by the Hollywood system and a standard-bearer for tentpole movie-making. Avatar is the future of the studio system.
In the right corner is a film which probably couldn’t have got financed in today’s economic climate, that tackles a difficult subject, creates tension out of hyper-realistic situations and doesn’t conform to storytelling formulae. It struggled to get US distribution and landed with the one company that made an offer on it - fast-growing Summit Entertainment. The studio specialty companies that might have made it or bought it were already in dire straits at the time of its world premiere (Sept 2008) and most have closed down since then.
If one of these films wins the best picture Oscar on Sunday – and chances are it will be one of the two – it will be a telling statement from the Hollywood establishment. Will the 5,777 voters choose, specialised film-making which needs all the help it can get, or a film which has reaffirmed the dominance of the blockbuster?
Of course comparison between such divergent types of films is ultimately a bit ridiculous.
An Oscar-nominated writer emailed me last week to complain that I had called his film “little seen” in comparison to The Dark Knight last year.  He felt I was incorrectly dismissive of his film’s results. Although that wasn’t my meaning or intention, I understand his frustration.
Comparison between films of such differing scales and ambitions is of little value, especially in commercial terms.
For all the talk of their demise, specialised titles – challenging, director- and script-driven films - still have a significant audience everywhere in the world and can be highly profitable if made at the right price. Just because they are a diminishing part of the Hollywood studio business doesn’t mean they have had their day.
Perhaps they should never have been incorporated into the studio business model anyway. The wave of specialised divisions including the still existing Fox Searchlight and Focus as well as Paramount Vantage, Warner Independent Pictures and Disney’s Miramax Films only served to drive up cost of specialised films to the point where in 2008, according to MPAA figures, the cost of making and marketing them was a staggering $74.8m in 2007 – up from $48.5m in 2006.
The ever dependable Sony Pictures Classics remains apart from this trend, largely focused on acquiring films and building them in the market the traditional independent way – slowly and cost-efficiently.
Indeed these films work best in a traditional independent model and now is the time for Summit, Lionsgate, The Weinstein Co, Overture, Apparition, IFC Films, Magnolia and other independents to reclaim the prestige business and return it to digestible spending levels.
If it wins, The Hurt Locker will be the lowest grossing best picture winner in modern times. But that’s not the point. It wasn’t very expensive to make, its DVD revenues have been healthy and its awards glow has driven people to seek it out who wouldn’t normally have done so. That makes it, if not an unqualified hit, at least a success.