CODA might be the gamechanger Apple TV+ badly needs

CODA.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Apple TV Plus, iStock)

You don't spend $25 million without wanting a little something in return. A private island, maybe. A ticket to outer space. Or, if you're Apple: an Oscar.

Of course, you can't really buy yourself an Oscar, because if you could, Netflix would have dozens by now. But when Apple TV+ snapped up the Sundance hit CODA for a record-breaking $25 million earlier this year — shattering Hulu's purchase of Palm Springs for $17,500,000.69 in 2020 as the biggest sale in the event's history — it wasn't a case of the usual buzzy festival one-upmanship. Apple has a distinct plan for CODA, and even if it doesn't necessarily end with a golden statuette, it could still be the gamechanger the streamer badly needs.

To understand Apple's big bet on CODA, though, you need to go back to 2006, when Little Miss Sunshine premiered in Park City. Like CODA, Little Miss Sunshine was a crowd-pleasing family drama that sparkled with humor and immediately won the hearts of festival-goers, garnering a standing ovation at its premiere. A fierce late-night bidding war ensued, with Fox Searchlight coming out victorious with the rights for a then-"astonishing" price of $10.5 million (quaint!).

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CODA's debut was similar. While it premiered at an almost entirely virtual Sundance Film Festival due to the pandemic, it received the equivalent of a digital standing ovation, with Variety writing it had a "rapturous premiere" with "some insiders even predicting a date with the Oscars." In my own rave review, I called it the first great film of the year.

Little Miss Sunshine didn't go on to win any Oscars, but it was one of the must-see movies of 2006, grossing $100 million and earning multiple Academy Award nominations. It also illustrated a case where "​​specialty companies are better off going to Sundance and outright overpaying for a great film than pay less for something that might be good," as "one prominent indie producer" explained to Indiewire.

CODA easily fits that criteria. It was the first movie in Sundance history to sweep all the top prizes in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section, and it seems poised to potentially repeat the Little Miss Sunshine phenomenon ... at least if people are willing to venture back into theaters or sign up for Apple TV+ when it's released on Friday.

But Apple isn't exactly making the same calculations that studios concerned with box office returns might. Far more important is beefing up its library with projects that give it prestige — and in turn, a fighting chance against competitors like Netflix and Amazon. Winning an Oscar of any kind would give it real credibility, and mark measurable progress from the nominations in categories like Best Sound and Best Animated Feature Film it earned in its debut awards season last year. People whose Apple TV+ free trials run out will be far more inclined to sign up for the streamer again if its back catalog includes an Oscar winner, too. "Apple TV Plus is trying to build a reserve of content," one analyst who covers Apple told The Washington Post. "The legacy library is not there for them, so they make purchases like this."

But I don't envy a film trying to win an Oscar this year: the widespread availability of vaccines and subsequent return of moviegoing in 2021 means the year is crowded with postponed contenders that could drown out a quieter indie darling. In the Heights is already in the mix, while there's a new Wes Anderson, a new Edgar Wright, and an Aretha Franklin biopic still to come. Steven Spielberg is remaking West Side Story, for Pete's sake! Additionally, with Americans on edge again due to the Delta variant, it's hard to imagine a repeat of the Little Miss Sunshine scenario of sold-out screenings, at least not quite yet. CODA might be coming in way too hot.

Still, even if Apple loses to the brooding ​​Timothée Chalamet movie and doesn't ultimately take home the golden statuette, it doesn't necessarily mean money is been wasted. Even a nomination for Best Picture at this point would be worth it, proof that Apple TV+ is playing in the big leagues now. The streamer has long been written off as having no hits other than Ted Lasso, and no catalog to speak of. But this year's big Sundance spend proves differently: Apple is worth watching, because CODA is too.

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