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Producer Philippe Rousselet noticed the shift while watching the SAG Awards. After Troy Kotsur made history yet again with a solo win, which was relatively expected, the entire cast headed to the stage to accept the ensemble award, which was not. That day, says Rousselet, was “a signal to everyone that maybe we cannot completely disregard CODA.”
CODA first caught the industry’s attention more than a year earlier in January 2021, when it sold to Apple TV for $25 million out of a pandemic-era Sundance Film Festival. “We know that we are a startup. We would like you guys to trust us,” producer Patrick Wachsberger remembers the Apple team, which is led by Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg and features head Matt Dentler, offering. It’s difficult to think of the literal most valuable company on the planet as a startup, but their film slate could certainly be described as such. Made up of largely festival and pandemic-era acquisitions and a smattering of homegrown dramas, Apple’s film slate went relatively unnoticed as compared to series like Ted Lasso and The Morning Show.
For filmmakers, first discussions about a possible awards run came when deciding a release date, which was ultimately set for the middle of August, months before the traditional award corridor. “We needed to be convinced on the date because we thought August was pretty far away from the awards,” remembers Rousselet. The thinking was that CODA, which cast authentically with deaf actors in lead roles and had few major movie stars outside of Eugenio Derbez and Marlee Matlin, would need more time to find its audience.
An early marketing presentation outlined an extensive plan that could carry the film through awards season. Touchstones of the campaign would come to include a run of free theatrical showings in February and a trip to the White House, with a co-sign from first lady Jill Biden, on the final day of Oscars voting. And, yes, there was leveraging of the brand, with clips of CODA playing on display products in New York and Los Angeles Apple stores. The campaign positioned CODA and the historic nature of the movie within the larger industry push for authenticity. Notes Rousselet, “They haven’t overplayed the cards. They haven’t been flashy.”
While the movie has been available since the summer, it was only within the past month and a half that filmmakers began to hear from industry cohorts in earnest. Says Wachsberger, “I started getting phone calls and texts from my peers, producers much bigger than me, going, ‘I just watched CODA with my family. Oh my God, it’s great!’”
CODA became the first movie from a streaming service to take home the best picture award, before more established players like Amazon and, most notably, Netflix, which has been chasing the top honor with entries from Alfonso Cuarón, Martin Scorsese and, this year, Jane Campion. Using language fit for its Silicon Valley-based distributor, Wachsberger surmises, “This movie became the disruptor.”
Apple celebrated the historic win with a private (and media-free) party at Sunset Tower, returning to the same venue that hosted its post-show event after its historic win at the Emmys for Ted Lasso. Sometime after midnight, the CODA team arrived at Vanity Fair’s storied Oscars party, where Apple CEO Tim Cook began accepting congratulations, briefly telling The Hollywood Reporter, “I’m grateful to be here on such a wonderful night for CODA and a wonderful night for Apple.” Asked for a response on what the win means for the streamer, he would only humbly add, “We are grateful to participate.”
Itself an adaption of the French film La Famille Bélier produced by Rousselet and Fabrice Gianfermi’s Vendome, CODA is due to be adapted yet again, this time into a stage musical from the L.A.-based Deaf West theater, meaning more awards could be in its future. In the lead-up to the Oscars, everyone from critics to industry insiders periodically dismissed CODA, its price tag, and awards prospects, calling it a made-for-TV or Hallmark Channel movie. Says Rousselet with a laugh, “My thinking today is I wish I would only do Hallmark movies.”
Chris Gardner contributed to this report.
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