Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Oscar Race: Email fallout and lawsuit for The Hurt Locker

Just before yesterday’s 5pm P.S.T deadline for the Oscar ballots, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) announced its punishment for The Hurt Locker producer Nicholas Chartier for sending emails which contravened Academy regulations. Oscar campaigns are banned from both praising their film or from disparaging other nominees, (hence the bland phrase, “For your consideration”) but his email subtly maligned Avatar. In other emails, he had also encouraged people to rank Avatar in the bottom position on the ballot in the mistaken belief that would better help The Hurt Locker’s chances.

The Academy therefore withdrew his allotment of tickets for the Academy Awards ceremony and will also not allow him to attend as another’s guest. This punishment was decided upon by the executive committee of the Producers Branch of AMPAS. If The Hurt Locker does win Best Picture, however, he will receive his statuette at some point in the future. They didn’t take the more severe steps of revoking his nomination, or possibly even removing the film from contention. They have not stated yet whether they might deny Chartier an invitation to the Academy, which is usually extended to Oscar winners, but that seems unlikely.

This seems a fitting punishment, as it isn’t so severe that his work will go unrecognized should he win, but it is severe enough that it will discourage other such behaviour from others in the future. Still, I’ve pointed out others who do far worse, but are much more discreet. But if the Academy were to track down the source of much of the trash-talking about Up in the Air and The Hurt Locker in the media, they’d end up having to ban the Weinsteins from the ceremony on Sunday as well.

To further add to the woes of the makers of The Hurt Locker, they’ve been hit with a lawsuit by Master Sgt. Jeffrey S. Sarver who was one of the soldiers that writer/producer Mark Boal was embedded with in Iraq. Sarver's lawyers issued a press release where he claims to be the basis for the film’s main character, Will James. His claim states that, “Virtually all of the situations portrayed in the film were, in fact, occurrences involving Master Sgt. Sarver that were observed and documented by Screenwriter Boal. Master Sgt. Sarver also coined the phrase, "The Hurt Locker" for Boal.”

Boal points out that the phrase is common currency and that claiming authorship of it is like saying you invented, “Live free or die.” He also says, “the screenplay is not about him. I talked to easily over 100 soldiers during my research and reshuffled everything I learned in a way that would be authentic, but would also make for a dramatic story."

Sarver also claims that, “the movie's screenwriter and makers decided to cheat Master Sgt. Sarver [a man who has repeatedly risked his life for his country] out of financial participation in the film, and any acknowledgment of his heroic actions in Iraq. Master Sgt. Sarver only learned of the Appropriation of his identity after the film's release.” But even if it were true that The Hurt Locker was based on Sarver, story subjects are not automatically entitled to financial participation. Boal also says that Sarver was invited to a New York screening of the film before it was released, contrary to the claim. He states, “He liked it and told me, 'Nice job.' He wasn't upset. He even invited some of us to visit the military base where he was stationed in New Jersey. I didn't know there was a problem until recently, when the lawyers got involved."

Sadly, this is a typical instance of greed that rears its ugly head whenever a work such as a book or movie becomes very successful. The Hurt Locker didn’t do all that well at the box office, but now that it looks like a sure-fire multiple winner for the Oscars, people like Sarver will come out of the woodwork with their hands out.

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