The Hurt Locker's Best Picture victory over Avatar at last week's Oscars was seen as a triumph of art over commerce, of substance over style. But it also signified a major triumph for Summit Entertainment, the little studio that could that had a lot to celebrate in 2009 between The Hurt Locker's critical acclaim and the monstrous box-office success of The Twilight Saga: New Moon. But does the rise of Summit signify the dawn of a new era of mid-major studios?
Looking back at the year's 10 Best Picture nominees and 2009's top 10 highest-grossing films, it's hard to recognize any signs of a regime change. Fox, Paramount, and Warner Bros. dominated the box-office charts with giant hits such as Avatar, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. The Academy recognized some of these big studio hits, like Up and The Blind Side, but maintained their street cred with the critics by also praising indies like Precious and An Education. Showing that they truly are still Miramax in everything but name, The Weinstein Co. managed to crank out a commercial hit that was also an Oscar winner with Inglorious Basterds. Except for Summit, all the usual players ended up in their usual places at year's end. Was Summit's breakthrough year just a fluke?
At first glance, it would appear so. But when you take a closer look at Summit's two big successes of 2009, you see they do have something in common. The Hurt Locker is an action movie that appeals both to audiences who like to see things get blown up and to critics who like a good character study. New Moon is also an action movie at its core -- but it's one that appeals to teen girls who like to watch Robert Pattinson sparkle as well as to fans of the supernatural. Looking back at that 2009 box-office top 10 list, six out of the 10 films were action based. American audiences enjoy watching robots fight, wizards duel, and shirtless teenage boys morphing into giant wolves. Summit found a formula for success last year by giving audiences what they want most -- action -- but more intimately than in your typical blockbuster. Though The Hurt Locker's explosions and New Moon's vampire/werewolf dustups were visually impressive, they were made on a much smaller scale than the epic battles of Avatar and Transformers. The result was that these films also managed to appeal to audiences that may not have even realized they were fans of action movies.
One lucky coincidence that helped make the The Hurt Locker a success was that it arrived in a year when the Academy desperately wanted to prove they were in touch with the tastes of the average filmgoer, but still couldn't stomach the idea of handing out a Best Picture statuette to something as bombastic as Avatar. The Hurt Locker was the perfect alternative for the top prize. If Summit keeps making more of these "intimate" action movies, they could continue to strike gold -- then we'll really start noticing how their success could bring some big changes to Hollywood.