‘Avatar’ vs. ‘Hurt Locker’ – Who’s Got the Upper Hand?

If it boils down to a two-film race for Best Picture, the Academy left a few hints as to who’s got the support

Last Updated: February 3, 2010 @ 1:11 PM

The Academy could hardly have done a better job of indicating that “The Hurt Locker” and “Avatar” are in a close race for the Best Picture award. The two films tied with nine nominations, more than any other films – and seven of those nine came in the same categories, including all the ones that are crucial for frontrunners: Best Director, Best Editing, Best Cinematography …

It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that “Up in the Air” or “Inglourious Basterds” could make a three-way race of it, or even that something else could sneak into the mix. We’re in largely uncharted territory with the new preferential system of Best Picture ballot-counting, which rewards films that can fashion a consensus over ones that voters either love or hate.

Jeremy RennerBut if it’s a two-horse race, if it comes down to “The Hurt Locker” vs. “Avatar” the way most Oscar-watchers expect, the Academy – and the guilds before them – left a few clues as to who has the upper hand.

First, here’s a key point to remember. In a close race that gets down to a final two films standing (as the system eliminates the lowest-ranked films one by one), the only question that matters is which of the two is ranked higher on the majority of ballots.

It won’t make any difference if “Avatar” and “Hurt Locker” are ranked first and second, or ninth and 10th. All that counts is which one the majority of voters prefer.

AvatarSo let’s look at the Academy, and at what the nominations told us about support for the two frontrunners.

First, we’ll start with the categories that nominated one film, but not the other.

For “Avatar,” that was Art Direction and Visual Effects. For “The Hurt Locker,” Original Screenplay and Best Actor.

So now we have four AMPAS branches going on record to say that they prefer one film over the other. Here, the numbers don’t favor James Cameron’s big hit: the art directors branch of the Academy contains 374 members, the visual effects branch 279. On the “Hurt Locker” side, the writers branch has 382 members, while the actors branch is by far the Academy’s largest, with 1,205.

So Kathryn Bigelow’s film comes out with a big lead, 1,587 members to 653.

(Yes, I know this is an oversimplification, and that all the actors aren’t going to vote for “Hurt Locker’ any more than all the art directors are going to vote for “Avatar,” and just because they like the craft of the film doesn’t mean they like the film itself. I’m just using the numbers to ferret out general preferences, and to suggest that the body of voters I’m placing in each film’s column would have a tendency to prefer that film over the other.)

We can’t tell from the Oscar nominations themselves, but are there other branches that we can safely place in one camp or another? For starters, I’d say that the astonishing boxoffice achievements of “Avatar,” and the way in which it’s been routinely if tediously described as a game-changer, will make it all but irresistible to the Academy’s executives and public relations branches. So, for now, I’m putting their numbers (437 execs, 368 p.r.) on the “Avatar” side of the ledger.

But Kathryn Bigelow won the top Directors Guild of America Award, which is voted on by the entire, 13,000-plus membership of the DGA, swollen with television directors and ADs and stage managers and others who had far less opportunity to even see “Hurt Locker.” I suspect it’d be foolish to think that the AMPAS directors branch, far smaller and more blue-ribbon in nature, wouldn’t do the same. She gets that branch, and its 366 members.

Ditto the 452-member producers branch, since the Producers Guild of America surprisingly voted its top award to “Hurt Locker.” (And they did so using the same preferential system the Academy will use.)

I’ll also give “Hurt Locker” the documentary branch (151).  So much of “Avatar” is CG that I’ll give it home-field advantage with the short films and feature animation branch (340).

That gives us 2,556 for “Hurt Locker,” 1,798 for “Avatar,” and another 1,423 branch members (cinematographers, film editors, makeup artists and hairstylists, music and sound, plus members at large) up for grabs.

The cinematographers, film editors, music and sound branches all gave nominations to both films, the makeup artists and hairstylists to neither; members at large only nominate Best Picture.

“Avatar” needs more than 75 percent of them to pull even. That wouldn’t be easy.  But when has anything about "Avatar" ever been easy?

I readily concede that this is spitballing and guessing and oversimplifying matters, all in the service of having fun with the race.

But, you know, it’s more than a month until the Oscar show. If we can’t entertain ourselves playing around with numbers between now and then, it’s going to be a long haul.