"The Hurt Locker" has taken in only $14 million in the U.S. so far. That's less than 2 percent of what "Avatar" has made in domestic ticket sales. If "The Hurt Locker" wins on Sunday, it will be the lowest-grossing film to take home the best-picture statuette in modern history-and maybe ever.
Woody Allen's "Annie Hall," which made $38 million after its 1977 release, or about $130 million when adjusted for inflation, holds the current record. "Crash," the lowest-grossing film to win the Oscar this decade, in 2006, made $53 million.
Since its release last June, "The Hurt Locker" has won top prizes from the Producers Guild, Director's Guild, and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. It also won best-picture accolades from the New York Film Critics Circle as well as similar associations in Los Angeles and other cities.
But Summit Entertainment, the film's distributor, has never managed to get the movie into wide release. "The Hurt Locker" hit its peak when it played in 535 theaters last August; it will appear in 274 this weekend. By contrast, "Cop Out" was in more than 3,000 for its debut last Friday.
Summit CEO Rob Friedman, whose independent studio created the huge "Twilight" franchise, knew "The Hurt Locker," as an Iraq war film, would be a tough sell. Summit paid a mere $1.5 million for the film at the Toronto Film Festival in 2008. But "we thought we had a strategy to overcome what had historically been an underperforming kind of movie," he says.
Summit initially released the movie last summer in just four theaters, hoping to expand it as wide as 1,000 or 1,200 theaters. But higher-grossing movies began to fill the multiplexes and slowly pushed the bomb-squad thriller off screens.
As Summit expanded the film's release from cities into more suburban areas, the studio's executives noticed that moviegoers began to lose enthusiasm. "We had internal conference calls every Saturday and Sunday trying to make determinations on what to do next. But we kept losing audiences, and it seemed like there was a feeling that the film was too intense for many audiences, especially older women," says Friedman.
Theater owners also lost faith. "We were pleased with its performance as a specialty/independent film, but it did not gain the momentum to cross over to a wide commercial audience," says Greg Dunn, president of Regal Entertainment Group, a leading U.S. theater chain.
The studio tried to resuscitate the movie around Christmas, hoping to release it on more screens, but again it wasn't getting traction.
The enthusiastic reaction from critics meant the film still had a shot at the awards. But with its box office still sagging, Summit decided to prepare for an early-January DVD release, even though that would mean effectively giving up on theaters. "You can always delay a DVD release," says Friedman. "But you can't prepare one if you haven't planned it all along."
By all accounts, the film has performed spectacularly on DVD, selling more than 710,000 units in home video formats and downloads since its debut and topping "most rented" lists. Those numbers are more akin to a film that has grossed three times as much.