It arrived at Sundance without a cast, now the festival’s first premiere to win Best Picture.
“CODA” made Oscar history for Apple TV+ on Sunday night by becoming the first film distributed by a streaming service to win Best Picture. But the film’s win is also a big moment for indie film: “CODA” was independently financed and produced, sold to Apple at Sundance, and marks the first time a Sundance premiere has won the top prize. Hollywood over the festival’s four-decade history.
Director Sian Heder and her producers went backstage at the Oscars after ‘CODA’ won Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, plus star Troy Kotsur won Best Actor in a second role. Heder was quick to point out the importance of the moment for independent filmmakers. In fact, Heder said she was, at one point, convinced the film couldn’t even be made because of her commitment to decisions like casting deaf actors like Kotsur.
“It’s a great moment for independent cinema,” she said. “When we went to Sundance, we didn’t have a distributor. I just went to Sundance thinking, “I hope someone buys this movie” and we just won best picture. It’s the stuff dreams are made of, it’s truly amazing. Yes, for women, for independent filmmakers, for anyone struggling to tell a story, it’s a beautiful moment.”
“CODA” stars Emilia Jones as high school student CODA, a child of deaf adults and the only hearing member of her fishing family played by Marlee Matlin, Kotsur and Daniel Durant. She is torn between her love of singing and her family’s expectations to help her in her business.
The film is a remake of the 2014 French film “La Famille Bélier”. This film was a hit in its home country, but notably cast hearing actors to play deaf roles. Producer Philippe Rousselet had the rights to make an American remake and brought in Heder for the job. The team faced an uphill battle trying to secure funding in light of their commitment to recruiting more deaf actors, even with Matlin’s early attachment to the project. Until Kotsur’s win last night, Matlin was the only deaf actor to win an Oscar, for 1986’s ‘Children of a Lesser God’.
“It’s frustrating being an independent filmmaker, which you’re supposed to miss and have movie stars in your movie and that’s how your movie gets funded,” Heder said. “I would rather see the movie die and never be made than be made the wrong way. Yeah, I stuck to my guns and there was a long moment where I was like, ‘OK, because from what I believe and because of the way I think this movie should be made, it will never be made.
So happy for ALL the accomplishments of this wonderfully talented team and the courageous independence of the team captain @sianheder fighting over how it was made and with whom it was made. https://t.co/dpfeiiHHsG
— TABITHA JACKSON (@TABULA4) March 28, 2022
In addition to Rousselet, “CODA” counts among its producers Patrick Wachsberger, the former Lionsgate film director responsible for hits like “Hunger Games” and “La La Land.” “CODA” was financed by the French powerhouse Pathé and Rousselet’s Vendome Pictures.
“When we got selected for Sundance it was already an amazing win, we were so happy,” Wachsberger said.
It premiered on the opening night of Sundance in 2021 to enthusiastic reception. Reading the tea leaves, Apple executives moved quickly to do whatever was necessary to secure the rights to the crowd pleaser. Within days, the company bought the film for $25 million, making it the biggest buy ever for a Sundance movie. “CODA” went on to win festival awards, winning a Grand Jury Prize, Audience Prize, Best Director, and a Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Cast.
Money isn’t a problem for Apple: Reports estimate the company spent more than $10 million on the Oscar campaign for ‘CODA,’ a movie that was made for less than $10 million . It helped Apple earn the coveted honor of being the first streaming service to win the Best Picture award. This comes as Netflix has moved strongly into the awards space: in 2020, 2021 and 2022, Netflix had the most Oscar nominations of any other distributor.
Every year, dozens of films make their way through the festival circuit and never find a distributor, let alone one willing to mount such a strong awards campaign. According to Wachsberger and Heder, Apple’s commitment to film and its Best Picture award are indeed signs that “independent cinema is still alive.”
“Certainly,” Wachsberger said. “We don’t fold the tent, okay? No one internationally or domestically folds the tent. We’re actually going to continue to make these films that we care about for a global audience.