How CODA managed to win the Best Picture award
Until a few weeks ago, no one seemed to really think about the Sian Heder movie CODA, the little family drama that could, would pull off all the 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 seated at home on their couches. It happened 14 months before those Oscars, which is an extraordinarily long time for a movie to keep gaining momentum. (There’s been quite another Oscar since then.) No Sundance premiere has ever won Best Picture.
Although it featured well-known performers including Marlee Matlin, so far the only deaf person to win an Oscar for her performance (in 1987 for Children of a lesser God), and multi-talented Best Actor winner Troy Kotsur — he had no catchy names or obvious Oscar hooks. CODA, named 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 business, but aspires to study music. It is based on a French film (the very similar from 2014 The Aries Family). 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 film distributed by a streaming service has won Best Picture, for the first time in the Oscars’ 94-year history. And against all odds and most predictions until recently, that streaming service wasn’t Netflix, whose movies The power of the dog and Don’t look up were considered among the strongest contenders for the grand prize of the evening. It was Apple TV+, which may be the best streaming service but failed to attract many subscribers in the glut of streamers, especially for its movies.
Service has resumed CODA at Sundance, but it was a big gamble for them. Streamers haven’t fared too well with the Academy when it comes to winning yet. And CODA was released on August 13, 2021, in a pre-pandemic era considered a dead end in the release schedule. It opened in theaters, but not many of them. There wasn’t a lot of buzz. If he lands any guild awards, maybe an Indie Spirit, that would be amazing.
It’s hard to say exactly what happened, but looking at the timeline, you can sort of guess. The film’s fortunes seemed to turn when, in late February, the film won the award for its ensemble cast. Kotsur also won for her performance that night and began winning awards: a BAFTA, Critics’ Choice, Independent Spirit. And the weekend before the Oscars, when the movie won the Writers Guild Best Adapted Screenplay award and the Producer’s Guild top prize, it started to look like the little movie that might actually be a snowball. starting to roll down the hill.
Plus, it’s just… really nice to look at. There’s a loving, imperfect family, a teenager with big dreams and heartbreaking times. Never underestimate the power of a movie that makes people feel a little verklempt at the end and feel like they’re contributing to an overlooked problem — in this case, the difficulties Deaf people may have navigating a world heavily biased in favor of hearing. If voters hadn’t seen the movie when it was released, the barrage of awards would grab their attention – and it might have seemed like a great option, especially for those who might have been weary of the talk of other movies.
Whether he deserves the award is another question. There’s a lot to like CODA, which resembles, in many ways, the kind of film you can see every day at Sundance or, these days, on a streaming service. It’s modest. These are ordinary people living ordinary lives. There are songs, lessons and a good heart.
On the other hand, it’s hard to see exactly how this fits into the Best Picture category. The Academy tends to honor films that it considers representative, in some way, of the past year in cinema. The Best Picture winner is the film that Hollywood’s largest voting body, made up entirely of people who work at the highest levels of the film industry, wishes to present as the best of the bunch, the example of what we can make .
It’s also hard to be totally square CODA with this designation. It has significant weak points (notably Eugenio Derbez, whose performance as a music teacher seems totally out of place) and quirks, and doesn’t feel as stable, confident and assured as any of the other nominated films in this category.
That it prevailed may have something to do with the wacky way the Academy votes for Best Picture, which tends to award bland films. In recent years, with changes in the demographics of the Academy and films like Moonlight and Parasite (and even The shape of water), some of that has changed. Corn CODA looks like the kind of movie most people can agree on, and that helps it stand out.
And in a way, the selection makes a lot of sense. Look, it’s been a tough year. It’s been a confusing year in the movie industry. People were trying to make movies in the middle of a pandemic. The theaters were kind of open sometimes, but no one seemed to know if they could go. Festivals and awards have been canceled and moved and just plain weird to attend. Schedules have been changed. There’s a lot of fear that big-budget megablockbusters will be the only movies that can still matter, the only ones studios will choose to make, since they’re the only ones making money. Streaming, an inherently individualistic mode of viewing, is eating away at an industry that was built on the communal experience of a theater. No one seems to have any idea what will happen next.
CODA straddles that line between uncertainty and safety and perhaps a little message to industry decision makers. Yes, it’s a movie that most people will see on their TV, not a cinema. But Apple TV+ paid big bucks to make it happen, long after independent production ended.
It’s also a movie that places enough value on the deaf community to bring out some of the issues that deaf viewers have when watching a movie, especially in a theater, and deliberately finds ways to counter that. It’s not an original story (it won Best Adapted Screenplay, after all), but it’s not based on any IP that would be familiar to its audience. You can read the Academy’s honor to him as a message to the studios: You might not make as much money from these movies, but we still want them.
Is it enough for studios to listen? Unfortunately, probably not. But as a representative of the upside-down movie year, in an upside-down world, handed out remarkably upside-down Oscars, maybe that’s not so bad. It might not quite be the best movie of 2021, but CODAWinning Best Picture just might make the best sense.
CODA is streaming on Apple TV+.