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Alan M. Webber
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Alan M. Webber

Alan Webber, a founding editor of Fast Company magazine, is an award-winning editor, author, and columnist. His most recent book is Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Yourself.

Things that go boom

Q: 'The Hurt Locker,' Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq war movie, won great reviews and the Oscar for best picture but has failed to draw large audiences, joining other 2009 critically acclaimed films such as 'The Messenger.' What are the challenges for artists who try to use their art to lead the public on a divisive political issue?

I suspect that in the case of The Hurt Locker, what hurt its box office performance was less a matter of politics and more a matter of exploding bodies. At least that was true for me.

When I first heard about the film, all I knew was that it was about a team in Iraq that went out to de-fuse bombs -- you know, those things we've all been reading about for the last few years? The things that terrorists strap on to their bodies to make themselves into human bombs? The things that send flesh and blood flying in all directions and cause untold human suffering?

Does that sound like a movie you want to go see? The economy's in the tank, the U.S. political scene is a depressing morass, our problems seem to be getting deeper, the solutions more difficult to see much less enact, and now you want me to go see a movie about people trying to de-fuse bombs?

What else is playing?

At least that was my initial attitude. Until my wife and daughter, both of whom have a much more adventurous spirit about film than I do, said The Hurt Locker was a must-see. So I went. Turned out, it didn't have a political take. It wasn't about politics. It didn't preach or even lead on politics. And it was touching, thoughtful, and moving.

So did it fail to find an audience at first because of politics? Or because it was a relatively low-budget film, with no famous stars and a subject that promised to leave you bummed out when you left the theater?

I'm thinking it had little to do with politics, and everything to do with most Americans not really wanting to go to the movies right now to watch things that go boom.

By Alan M. Webber

 |  March 9, 2010; 5:41 AM ET
Category:  Artistic leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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There are plenty of movies out there right now, including Avatar, which are pretty much geared to satisfy those people who want to watch "things go boom."

What people don't want to do is personally engage in a depiction of the real repercussions of war.

Posted by: auntiemare | March 9, 2010 2:57 PM
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That's quite a contrarian take. More typically American movie audiences are accused of only wanting to watch things go boom.

Posted by: bisonaudit | March 9, 2010 2:02 PM
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"The Hurt Locker" was not as much of a failure, commercially speaking, as the box office total makes it appear. It cost an estimated $11M to make, and according to Wikipedia it grossed $21M. "The film has already outperformed all other Iraq-war themed films such as In the Valley of Elah (2007), Stop-Loss (2008) and Afghanistan-themed Lions for Lambs (2007).

"Avatar" cost roughly $500M to make, and as of 1-24-10 it had grossed $1,242M.

So the ratios of profit/cost are roughly 1.9 for "Hurt Locker" and 2.5 for "Avatar."

It does seem that it takes money to make money. I think the investors in both films are happy.

Posted by: dotellen | March 9, 2010 11:07 AM
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