The Oscars best picture win was a March Madness upset of streaming proportions — though the slap heard round the world threatened to overshadow the achievements of “CODA” and other winners.
What started out as a great improvement in the presentation was diminished by Will Smith charging the stage and smacking comedian Chris Rock after he cracked a joke about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith in the last hour, just moments before the In Memoriam segment and prior to him becoming the fifth Black man to win best actor.
It might go down as one of the craziest moments in 94 years of Oscars history.
But back to the night’s biggest winner: streaming. Apple, under its film distribution banner Apple Original Films, became the first streamer to win the Oscar for best picture with Siân Heder’s family drama “CODA.”
It’s been no secret that Netflix has long harbored ambitions to be the first digital video player to take home the Academy Awards’ most prestigious honor, spending lavishly to promote the likes of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” (2018), Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” (2019) and David Fincher’s “Mank” (2020). The investment has yielded lots of nominations, but has not paid off with the major recognition that Netflix was seeking. Instead, the Netflix team had to clap as Apple Original Films, one of the scores of new streaming players that have launched in recent years, got Best Picture bragging rights.
With “The Power of the Dog,” a dark and deliberately paced examination of toxic masculinity, Netflix had a tough sell. Many marveled at Jane Campion’s skilled direction — and she won an Oscar on Sunday, the only prize Netflix nabbed — but others found the movie boring or depressing. And yet the data-driven Netflix still managed to snag 12 nods for the film and a boatload of other prestigious honors by surgically targeting key guilds and voting members. The Best Picture loss wasn’t for lack of trying…or spending.
With “CODA,” Apple, despite having a market cap that rivals many countries, opted for a slower, more organic build. After debuting at the Sundance Film Festival, “CODA” was acquired by Apple for a record-breaking $25 million (a sign of its financial heft and the challenges that Netflix now faces with all the new competitors). It had only a small theatrical release, grossing just over $1 million, but its Apple slot meant it wasn’t subject to the typical box office metrics for success that have been redefined in the time of COVID.
Apple’s awards campaigning didn’t go all out on Heder’s film from the start. The newest kid on the streaming block was learning how to juggle multiple projects including Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” and Todd Haynes’ documentary “The Velvet Underground” – both of which came up short in the awards race.
So what brought this late Oscar season surge on?
This is where word of mouth from critics, journalists and guild voters spread in a slow, but steady stream at Q&As and tastemaker events throughout the season.
Even as people gathered at events for “Belfast” or “Power of the Dog,” it was “CODA” that ended up dominating conversations.
But there wasn’t much more Netflix could have done for the long, leisurely-paced “Power of the Dog,” which they brought further than any studio could have. It’s hard to believe the results would have been different if an indie distributor was steering the ship.
A movie like “CODA” winning best picture under these circumstances is a Hailey’s Comet type of event. What probably makes it a tougher pill to swallow is that multiple studios put in bids for the feature at Sundance (including Netflix), so it’s possible the outcome would have been the same with any other competent distributor.
But that’s the beauty and mystery of Sundance. You don’t know what you got until it wins three Oscars including the night’s top prize. And while “CODA’s” win was justly recognized as an important step forward in representation for the deaf community and people with disabilities, its victory is notable in another way. While other films such as “Manchester by the Sea” and “Little Miss Sunshine” have won Oscars after premiering at Sundance, “CODA” is the first best picture winner to emerge from the mountaintop festival.
But its major legacy will be for the barriers that “CODA” shattered on screen. Tears filled the room with inarguably the most emotional moment of the evening as Troy Kotsur won supporting actor for “CODA.” Representation and diversity are more than skin color. “CODA” proves that. No matter where you fall on the artistic merits of “CODA,” its wins should be celebrated, particularly for supporting actor winner Kotsur, only the second deaf performer to win an Oscar. I sincerely hope his recognition is not a passing fad and that filmmakers and studios think of him, along with Matlin, Daniel Durant and every other deaf actor that deserves an opportunity.
“CODA” director Siân Heder took home a statuette herself for adapted screenplay over USC Scripter winner “The Lost Daughter” and Critics Choice winner “The Power of the Dog.”
After movie stars and executives have raised their last glass of champagne and returned home from all the Oscar parties, it may begin to dawn on them that the movie business they wake up has been fundamentally changed. They may pay lip service to beauty of the big screen, but most people prefer their entertainment streamed. Now that a company like Apple has won, where does the industry go from here?
Once the genie has been let out of the bottle, it actually might be easier for Netflix to navigate future awards seasons. The pressure is off, and as in 2017 when Hulu beat Netflix to the Emmys punch when “The Handmaid’s Tale” in drama series, four years later, Netflix returned the favor as “The Crown” dominated the prizes.
Could the Netflix or Apples of the future field the next “Slumdog Millionaire” or “Titanic” and tie the record for the most Oscars won, or even surpass it?
Anything’s possible, but let’s just remember to sit back and enjoy the essence of cinema, whether the films are winning Oscars or not.