In analyzing how “CODA” achieved its Best Picture win, we must face a discomfiting reality: Beyond Oscar qualification, theatrical play had very little to do with its success.
Most years, winning Best Picture includes a careful effort by its distributor to make it hit. Recent winners such as “Parasite” and “Green Book” played theaters during the campaigning period and it served as a proof of concept: Audiences responded. In earlier years, lower-grossing winners like “The Hurt Locker” (an early-year release) and “Moonlight” (strong for an independent film dealing with challenging themes) got credit for doing better than expected.
This year, all Oscar contenders had some theatrical life. “CODA” was one of three Best Picture nominees to have same-day openings in theaters, along with “Dune” and “King Richard” (both as Warner Bros. releases on HBO Max, a now-vacated policy). Focus Features’ “Belfast” went to PVOD after four weeks. These truncated release schedules upended the classic pattern for receiving voter attention and maximizing grosses: Start with platform, followed by big-city releases and holiday expansion, with the widest breaks around nominations.
“The Power of the Dog” and “Don’t Look Up” came to Netflix two or three weeks after they appeared in limited theaters, guided by an in-house team of distribution veterans. When Apple bought “CODA” at Sundance, the studio had no clear theatrical release strategy.
It hired Bleecker Street, a distributor that has become a white-label solution for streamers seeking theatrical releases (in addition to handling its own films). It opened the film August 13, the same day it premiered on Apple, and skipped the fall film festivals often used to reintroduce Sundance titles. By the time awards media began considering Oscar contenders at Telluride, Venice, and Toronto, “CODA” seemed like old news.
Reporting at the time saw “CODA” in about 40 theaters in key cities, but neither Bleecker Street nor Apple would confirm that number nor reveal the grosses. (Our independent, very rough estimate was that in its initial weekend it grossed as little as $100,000.) It had little presence after that initial foray, but that might have helped its awards chances.
“CODA” was always an awards title. With good-but-not-great reviews, Apple knew it probably would not thrive with critics groups — however, it made an early debut on the Academy members’ screening platform. By December, the membership was praising the film on social media and word of mouth spread.
The lack of theatrical attention meant many other members didn’t see the film until late in the game. Interest in Netflix’s films seemed to peak in December. Apple counted on member reaction to propel it rather than critics or box office and as a result it received maximum attention when it mattered most.
Contrast that to “West Side Story.” When it screened in December, the Oscars were still looking for a Best Picture frontrunner. It got strong reviews, a wide release on a prominent date, and became one of the two eventual Best Picture nominees to gross more than $18 million. However, its $38.5 million domestic total stunned the film business with its failure to gain audience traction. Those optics doomed it from the start.
Grossing $108 million domestic bolstered “Dune.” “King Richard” had a tepid response, but enough for Best Actor Will Smith. “Belfast” and “Nightmare Alley” grossed less. With its long pre-PVOD window, “Licorice Pizza” managed $17 million. “Drive My Car” was very impressive for a Japanese arthouse title, but a tiny share of what “Parasite” reached. “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” meant a Best Actress win for Jessica Chastain, but the Searchlight release only managed $2.4 million.
If theatrical grosses didn’t boost any top-category Oscar winner this year, that doesn’t mean box office won’t matter next year and beyond. But already, the lesson is learned: A film can win without it.