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If All Content Is a Competition, How Could ‘CODA’ Possibly Capture the Same Buzz as ‘The White Lotus’?

What does it mean when a Sundance smash hit can't compare to the zeitgeisty-ness of a slightly-more-than-moderately successful HBO series?

"Coda" "The White Lotus" Apple TV+ HBO

Courtesy of Apple TV+ and HBO

This past weekend saw the release of a pair of much-hyped projects: Sian Heder’s Sundance winner “CODA” and the finale of Mike White’s first season of “The White Lotus,” and while both are exceptional pieces of entertainment, only one was the clear winner in the online buzz sweepstakes. What does it mean when a Sundance smash hit can’t compare to the zeitgeisty-ness of a slightly-more-than-moderately successful HBO series? IndieWire executive editor, film Kate Erbland and deputy editor, TV Ben Travers came out of their respective corners for a Double Take about the value of online chatter, and what it means for an increasingly connected world.

KATE ERBLAND: This past weekend saw the much-anticipated release of two distinctly different pieces of entertainment: the theatrical and streaming release of Sian Heder’s Sundance smash hit (it swept the awards in January and sold to AppleTV+ for a record-breaking $25 million) “CODA” and the final episode of the first season of Mike White’s devilishly entertaining HBO series “The White Lotus.” In the particular corner of the film world IndieWire happily occupies, there was no bigger movie last weekend than “CODA,” a feel-good family film with a festival pedigree, awards aspirations, and a winning message about love and inclusion. So why did “The White Lotus” seemingly dominate the online conversation?

While online chatter certainly isn’t everything, it can be a useful barometer for what’s getting people excited, and the people — and IndieWire’s readers — are hot on “The White Lotus,” more than they appear to be about “CODA.” The reasons are likely myriad: We still don’t have a reliable way to report streaming figures (though, if “CODA” were a smash hit on Apple’s platform, you can bet we all would have woken up on Monday morning to an email touting exactly that; additionally, Apple has not yet reported the film’s theatrical gross), the ongoing pandemic has kept many away from returning to movie theaters, and perhaps all the buzz from January didn’t stick.

And, of course, “The White Lotus” had something that few movies (and, regrettably, fewer TV shows than ever before) have built into their appeal: weeks and weeks of episodes, all the better to keep bringing in viewers as the show grows over time. Perhaps it’s not fair to compare the first-week release of a film with the finale of an evolving show, but as the streaming world simultaneously expands and contracts, these comparisons are going to keep coming. It’s all content now, but how are people consuming that content?

So, Ben, I ask you: Which release did you see more online chatter about? And what is the value of such chatter?

“CODA”

APPLETV+

BEN TRAVERS: Kate, aside from perusing The New York Times, I spend weekends in an online bubble made up almost entirely of TV, film, and sports. So the most chatter I saw from Friday-to-Sunday focused on Justin Fields’ preseason debut for the Chicago Bears. The arm, the legs, the vision — it’s all there. Well, he could use a stronger offensive line, and maybe a few more receivers, and perhaps some sideline and in-game experience outside of a meaningless August exhibition… but whether he’s the next Patrick Mahomes or Mitch Trubisky, attention must be paid.

That may sound like a self-indulgent tangent (because it is) but a broader point remains: When it comes to streaming, it’s all a competition, and “CODA” entered this week’s fight with no shot of winning. As you mentioned, “The White Lotus” had a five-week head start, airing episodes every Sunday night on HBO’s linear networks as well as its growing streaming service, HBO Max. Critical buzz was fierce, with plenty of cast interviews, analytical essays, and even granular breakdowns of the show’s niche components helping to spread their fervor to a wider audience. Shortly after Episode 3 premiered, HBO reported almost 900,000 viewers had tuned in across platforms on Sunday night — but by that same weekend, more than 4.4 million had watched the premiere.

This kind of gap between nightly audiences and total viewership is standard in the age of streaming — people watch when they want to watch — but if they’re given incentive and opportunity to watch live, they will, and “The White Lotus” gave them lots of incentive. First and foremost, the limited series is ostensibly a whodunit: The pilot promises one of the cast members will die, and viewers had to watch until the end to find out who, how, and why. As HBO has seen with other mystery hits like “Mare of Easttown” and “The Undoing,” weeks of theorizing can create a perfect storm, where all that buzz, steadily growing viewership, and our natural inclination to get answers results in a finale that functions like an event. And events are what people make time for, whether it’s the climactic unveiling of who, in fact, did it, or your first glimpse at the second coming of Sid Luckman.

So, knowing this wasn’t exactly a fair fight, let me ask you this: If “CODA” had hit theaters without the Covid cloud hanging over every exhibition house in the country, could the sweet Sundance favorite have made enough noise to win the next few weekends?

Murray Bartlett in "The White Lotus"

Murray Bartlett in “The White Lotus”

HBO

KATE: This is an excellent point to make: Even in a “normal” exhibition world, “CODA” would likely never have won the box office, but it might — and still might!! — stand a chance to rack up a few more money-making weekends. Even in these bad times, some of the biggest indie and specialty breakouts of the year, including “Pig,” “Stillwater,” “Roadrunner,” and “The Green Knight,” are having comparatively good runs at the box office. People are still turning out to see films in theaters, even the “little” ones.

But “CODA” faces the somewhat unique challenge of also being available on a streaming platform, where there doesn’t seem to be the same urgency of watching now now now, unlike films that are only in theaters (catch it while you can!) or shows, like “The White Lotus,” that roll out week to week and encourage viewers who are able to tap in right now to keep up with the conversation.

But why are the internet-connected tastemakers not tuning into “CODA,” is what I wonder? Is the buzz already over after its sterling Sundance premiere? Is it holding out for a hopefully robust awards run? What makes a film or a TV show something that people feel they need to not only consume now, but talk about it across social media? Maybe millions of people did watch “CODA” this weekend, but didn’t feel inclined to chat about it online, but why then does “The White Lotus” invite so much chatter?

Could it be that, in these crazy times, people are still longing for internet-based connection, the new water cooler, if you will, but that’s something that still takes time to grow? And, if that’s the case, how can films compete with a format that seems ready-made for episodic work?

"Coda"

“CODA”

Apple

BEN: Oh my, where to begin? For starters, I’d argue it’s a mistake for distributors to think of a theatrical release as a shortcut to turning a movie into an event. Earlier, I mentioned “The White Lotus” gave viewers incentive and opportunity to watch the finale live (or at least close to live). Incentive can come in many forms: a gripping narrative, familiar I.P., major star power, etc. But opportunity is what I think “CODA” and so many movies these days are struggling with. Even before the pandemic, release models were shifting; when and how to see a given movie was becoming more complicated. But now, it’s absolutely baffling. IndieWire has reported on the issue more than a few times — including your very helpful weekly guide to Where to Watch the Latest Films — but as the wise fox foretold, chaos reigns.

Saying a movie is in theaters may provide an easy answer, but it’s not necessarily a welcoming one. Box office totals indicate there’s a significantly smaller pool of willing moviegoers than there was two years ago. Even for those OK with venturing to the multiplex, Covid still makes everything more confusing. Which theaters are open? What are their mask mandates? Can I get concessions? What happened to the matinee shows I liked? How long will the movie I want to see be in theaters? Should I just wait for it to show up on streaming?

All of those questions are a deterrent to seeing a movie on opening weekend, and without easy and immediate answers, I expect more people will wait. Honestly, I expect waiting to become the default choice, if it hasn’t already, because streaming faces similar problems. “CODA” is available for anyone with an Apple TV+ subscription. But do you have to have an Apple product to use Apple TV+? (No.) Can’t I just rent the movie instead of signing up for a monthly subscription? (No.) When will it show up on Netflix? (Never.) Those parentheticals require a bit of digging for an average customer with common questions, and because many movies jump from platform to platform so often, audiences have been trained to expect everything to eventually make its way onto a service they already pay for. So why bother watching “CODA” now?

There are other impediments, as you pointed out. With a family drama like “CODA,” spoilers aren’t really a concern (which motivate movie and TV fans to watch sooner rather than later), and its wholesome, straightforward story will inspire fewer hot takes to feed the insatiable internet monster (which stoke buzz like twigs on a campfire). But even as a day-and-date release, “CODA” has an accessibility issue. Plenty of TV shows face a similar problem, but they have the added advantage of time and training; audiences kept hearing about “The White Lotus” for six weeks, and they eventually figured out what network/service was carrying it. Apple is hoping they become familiar with Apple TV+ and its many peculiarities (for instance, an Apple TV is a product, and Apple TV+ is a service, which as a distinction is… just insane). Popular movies and shows can help speed up that familiarity. But “CODA” may be a loss leader for the company’s greater goal.

As for the tastemakers, I leave that question to you: Plenty of Sundance sensations hit it big, and plenty more get overlooked. Did “CODA” drop too long after the festival to keep its buzz? Was it too soon to capitalize on the awards cycle? And how does the film world build excitement anew after most of the reviews and many of the features ran months prior, when the film community first saw it themselves?

The White Lotus HBO Connie Britton Steve Zahn

Connie Britton and Steve Zahn in “The White Lotus”

Mario Perez / HBO

KATE: I think the short answer to all your (very salient) questions and more is: We’re still figuring that all out. A few days ago, I saw a large poster for “CODA” at my local Upper East Side bus stop and I was delighted, and then suddenly very sad, as I realized it was the first big piece of marketing I’d seen for the film out in the wild. Maybe “CODA” missed its Sundance window — but does that really mean something to regular audiences, or even our highly educated IndieWire readers? — and maybe it should have waited a bit to drop into the usual awards season scrum — but, dare I even venture to hope this, maybe good films can get awards attention no matter when they drop? — and yet I feel like we can probably both agree that there was an overall visibility issue.

As you sagely point out, Apple has an accessibility issue, a problem with visibility, and a need to further communicate how its streaming platform works (versus the biggies, like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video). To get people talking about a film or a show or a podcast, people need to start, well, talking. Perhaps there will be a bigger push for the film as we head into the awards scrum, and maybe Apple’s devoted streaming audience will kick up some good, old-fashioned word of mouth. “CODA,” luckily enough, is the kind of film that engenders that kind of conversation: People see it, and they love it. There’s little better endorsement than that, but people need to see it first.

And that brings us back to the beginning: To see it, people need to know about it, and I can promise you, lots of people know all about “The White Lotus” now. Maybe we’ll get some of those devoted viewers onto the “CODA” train by way of this very piece: See “CODA”! It’s wonderful! It’s not like “The White Lotus,” but that might be what you need after that banger of a finale!

An easier question to end on: Do you think the success of such series like “Mare of Easttown” and “The White Lotus” will inspire more series to go back to the weekly episode format? We might not be able to crack the future of feature films right now, but perhaps we can lay this worry to rest!

Julianne Nicholson and Kate Winsle

Julianne Nicholson and Kate Winslet in “Mare of Easttown”

Sarah Shatz/HBO

BEN: Weekly releases are an excellent option for certain TV series and a release strategy I’d encourage more often than not. Thankfully, HBO never let it go, so the premium cable network and streamer’s latest success stories echo so many more over the past two decades. As much as I’d like to think word-of-mouth surprises like these will push streaming services back toward a weekly model (or just into further experimentation in release strategies, rather than the all-at-once binge model), it’s more likely the blockbuster hits like “The Mandalorian” and “WandaVision” will help dictate TV’s dominant pace.

As everyone tries to figure out the best way to get eyeballs on their movies and shows, the worst thing a distributor can do is take their audience for granted. They’re eager, but they’re not easy. No matter what you’re pushing, film or TV, you’ve got to earn the attention — and that starts with access.

“CODA” is now in theaters and streaming on Apple TV+. The complete first season of “The White Lotus” is now streaming on HBO Max.

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