EW Staff
March 12, 2010 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Academy intended this year’s awards show to be a more populist affair. They doubled the number of Best Picture contenders and nominated the highest-grossing movie ever, James Cameron’s Avatar. In the end, though, voters must have believed $2.6 billion was its own reward. The night’s top prizes went not to Cameron’s epic but to Kathryn Bigelow’s tense war drama The Hurt Locker, now the lowest-grossing winner of all time, with only $21 million in worldwide box office receipts. The movie has already sold close to 800,000 copies on DVD, so Summit Entertainment can’t do much more to cash in on the victory than add a modest 65 new screens to its North American run.

The road to victory was not an easy one. The Hurt Locker featured no big stars and centered on the poisonous box office subject of war. But the critics championed it, voting it top of their lists in New York City and L.A., and at the important Critics’ Choice Awards. Wins from the Producers Guild and Directors Guild soon followed. Still, The Hurt Locker‘s front-runner status was almost derailed. The film’s primary financier, Nicolas Chartier, sent an e-mail encouraging his peers to vote for his little indie over ”a $500M film.” That disparaging reference to Avatar broke Oscar campaigning rules, and Chartier was banned from the ceremony. Then after voting had closed, Master Sgt. Jeffrey S. Sarver filed a defamation suit against Hurt Locker producers. (Screenwriter-producer Mark Boal was embedded with Sarver’s unit in Baghdad in 2004, and Sarver claims the main character is based on him.) But neither episode diminished the excitement of Oscar night. Though Chartier couldn’t accept his Best Picture award in front of a global audience, he did make a speech at a party held in his honor. ”Making films is tough. It’s not about the girls, money, and fame,” he said. ”This is what we live for: to tell stories, to make people laugh and cry…and sometimes to make art.”

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