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'The Hurt Locker' backlash: What will it mean?

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It’s times like these that make me hate the Oscar season. Every year without fail it seems there’s a wave of trash-talking against the perceived front-runner for Best Picture. Obviously, these days that’s The Hurt Locker. And the backlash has been coming fast and furious. Some of the negative press has certainly been earned: Locker producer Nicolas Chartier showed absolutely horrible judgment (and an total lack of class) when he emailed Hollywood industry types encouraging them to vote for his film instead of “a $500M film.” But other swipes at the movie seem more calculated. Rival studios—and don’t assume I’m talking about 20th Century Fox, which released Avatar, because I’m not—are reminding anyone who’ll listen about Locker‘s weak box office performance. Military spokespeople are decrying what they perceive as inaccuracies in the film…eight months after it was released. It all reeks of desperation on the part of the film’s competition, to take down the movie that nearly every guild has anointed as the best of 2009.

The same thing happened last year, you’ll recall. In the weeks leading up to Slumdog Millionaire‘s Oscar sweep, claims began surfacing that the filmmakers had exploited the production’s young actors. Slumdog detractors also cried foul when the film won the SAG Award for best cast over Milk and Doubt. In that instance, the backlash didn’t end up making a difference because Slumdog was so far out in front. But this year it’s a different story, with Avatar and The Hurt Locker so tightly stacked against each other for Best Picture. The Hurt Locker certainly has all the big precursors on its side, and the preferential balloting does seem like it’ll help that film more than Avatar. But I continue to hear about a wave of west coast support for Avatar to counter the New York voters’ love for Kathryn Bigelow’s film. And now, one of the savviest Oscar predictors around, Sasha Stone over at Awards Daily, is predicting Avatar for the big win this Sunday. She may be right.

If Hurt Locker loses, will it just be because of all the recent negative commentary? Probably not. The backlash didn’t really pick up steam until so late in the balloting process that many voters had already submitted their ballots. But it probably did cost The Hurt Locker some votes. What worries me is this: In many people’s minds, a Hurt Locker loss might prove that negative campaigning works. Meaning we’ll see more of the same predictable, petty awards-season trash-talking next year.

I’m headed out to Los Angeles tomorrow for the run-up to the awards. Follow me on Twitter (@davekarger) for updates while I’m there.

Image credit: Jonathan Olley