Monday, May 16, 2022

How CODA managed to get a Best Picture win

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Shreya Christina
Shreya has been with for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider team, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

Until a few weeks ago, no one really seemed to think Sian Heder’s movie CODA, the little family drama that could, would land all Oscar wins, let alone Best Picture. (I certainly didn’t.)

And why would they? With a modest budget of $10 million, it premiered at an all-virtual Sundance Film Festival, with all festival-goers sitting on their couches at home. That happened 14 months before these Oscars, which is an extraordinarily long time for a movie to continue to pick up steam. (There have been many other Oscars since.) No Sundance premiere has ever won Best Picture.

Although it has starred a number of well-known performers, including Marlee Matlin, to date the only deaf person to ever win an Oscar for her performance (in 1987 for Children of a Lesser God), and multi-talented now Best Actor winner Troy Kotsur — it had no catchy names or obvious Oscar bait hook. CODANamed after the acronym Children of Deaf Adults, is a film about a hearing teenager who works with her deaf parents and brother in their fishing company, but has the ambition to study music. It is based on a French movie (the very similar 2014 La Famille Belier† Much of it is in American Sign Language. It’s sweet, and funny, and a little corny, and very serious.

But here we are: A movie distributed by a streaming service has won the Best Picture award for the first time in 94 years of Oscar history. And against all odds and until recently most predictions, that streaming service wasn’t Netflix, whose movies The power of the dog and don’t look up were considered one of the strongest contenders for the evening’s grand prize. It was Apple TV+, which is arguably the best streaming service out there, but it failed to gain much traction with subscribers in the streamer glut, especially for its movies.

The service has been picked up CODA at Sundance, but it was a big gamble for them. Streamers haven’t done very well with the Academy yet when it comes to winning. And CODA was released on August 13, 2021, considered a blind spot in the release calendar in pre-pandemic times. It opened in theaters, but not many of them. It didn’t have much buzz. If it won some guild awards, maybe an Indie Spirit, that would be incredible.

Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin and Daniel Durant in CODA.

Hard to say exactly what happened, but if you look at the calendar, you can guess. The film’s fate seemed to turn when the film won the prize for its ensemble cast in late February. Kotsur also won for his performance that night and started taking home awards: a BAFTA, a Critics’ Choice, an Indie Spirit. And by the weekend before the Oscars, when the film won Best Adapted Screenplay from the Writers Guild and the top prize of the producers guildit started to look like the little movie that could actually be a snowball starting to roll down the hill.

Plus, it’s just… a lot of fun to watch. It has a loving and imperfect family, a teenager with big dreams and some tear-jerking moments. Never ignore the power of a movie that makes people feel a little cramped towards the end and feel they are contributing to an overlooked problem—in this case, the difficulties deaf people may encounter in navigating a world that is overwhelmingly focused on hearing. If voters hadn’t seen the film when it came out, the barrage of awards would have caught their eye — and it could have seemed like a great option, especially for those who might have grown tired of the discourse surrounding other films.

Whether it deserves the award is another question. There’s a lot to love CODA, which in many ways feels like the kind of movie you can watch every day on Sundance or on a streaming service these days. It’s modest. It’s about ordinary people who lead ordinary lives. It has some songs, and lessons, and a good heart.

On the other hand, it’s hard to see exactly how it fits into the Best Photo category. The Academy tends to honor films that it sees in some way as representative of the past year in the film. The Best Picture winner is the film that the largest polling station in Hollywood, which is made up entirely of people working at the highest levels in the film industry, wants to put forward as the best of the bunch, the example of what we can do.

It’s also hard to square all the way CODA with that designation. It has some prominent weaknesses (most notably Eugenio Derbez, whose acting as a music teacher is totally out of place) and quirks, and doesn’t feel quite as stable, confident, and self-assured as all the other films nominated in that category.

The fact that it prevailed may have something to do with the crazy way the Academy votes for Best Picture, which usually awards the award to boring films. In recent years, with changes in the Academy’s demographics and films such as Moonlight and Parasite (even The shape of water), something has changed here. But CODA feels like the kind of movie most people can agree on, and that helps it stand out.

A teenage girl and her father are sitting in the back of a truck.  He has his arm around her shoulders.

Emilia Jones and Troy Kotsur in CODA

And in a way, the selection makes a lot of sense. Look, it’s been a difficult year. It’s been a mind-boggling year for the film industry. In the midst of a pandemic, people were trying to make movies. Theaters were a bit open at times, but no one seemed to know if they could go there. Festivals and awards were canceled and moved and just weird to attend. Schedules were reversed. There’s a lot of fear that mega-blockbusters with huge budgets are the only movies that matter more, the only ones studios will choose to make, since they’re the only ones making money back. Streaming, an inherently individualistic way of viewing, eats away at an industry built on the communal experience of a theatre. No one seems to have any idea what’s going to happen next.

CODA cut across that line between uncertainty and security and maybe a little bit of a message to industry decision makers. Yes, it’s a movie that most people will see on their TV, not a movie theater. But Apple TV+ paid a lot of money to get it there, long after independent production was completed.

It’s also a film that cared enough for the deaf community to bring to light some of the problems deaf viewers face when watching a movie, especially in a theater, and deliberately find ways to counteract that. It’s not an original story (it won Best Adapted Screenplay after all), but it’s not based on an IP that would be known to the public. The credit the Academy has given to it can be read as a message to the studios: you may not be making that much money from these films, but we want them anyway.

Is that enough to get studios listening? Unfortunately, probably not. But as a representative of the tumultuous film year, in a tumultuous world, handed out at a remarkably tumultuous Oscars, it might not be half bad. It may not really be the best movie of 2021, but CODA‘s Best Picture win might just make the most sense.

CODA streams on Apple TV+.

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