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‘CODA’ Director Sian Heder: Best Picture Win Was Big for Apple TV+, but Even Bigger for Indie Film

It arrived at Sundance without distribution, now it's the festival's first premiere to win Best Picture.

Sian Heder, winner of the Oscar for Adapted Screenplay for "CODA" at the 94th Academy Awards held at Dolby Theatre at the Hollywood & Highland Center on March 27th, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.

Sian Heder

Gilbert Flores for Variety

CODA” made Oscars history for Apple TV+ Sunday night when it became the first movie distributed by a streaming service to win Best Picture. But the film’s win is also a big moment for indie film: “CODA” was independently financed and produced, sold to Apple at Sundance, and marks the first time a Sundance premiere has won Hollywood’s top prize in the festival’s four-decade history.

Director Sian Heder and her producers went backstage at the Oscars after “CODA” won both Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, in addition to star Troy Kotsur winning Best Supporting Actor. Heder was quick to highlight the significance of the moment for indie filmmakers. In fact, Heder said that she was, at one time, convinced the film wouldn’t even be able to get made because of her commitment to decisions like casting deaf actors like Kotsur.

“This is a huge moment for independent film,” she said. “When we went into Sundance, we had no distributor. I just went into Sundance thinking, ‘I hope somebody buys this movie’ and we just won Best Picture. This is the stuff dreams are made of, it’s really been amazing. Yes, to women out there, to indie filmmakers out there, to anybody who’s fighting to tell a story, this is a beautiful moment.”

“CODA” stars Emilia Jones as a high schooler CODA, a child of deaf adults and the only hearing member of her fishermen family played by Marlee Matlin, Kotsur, and Daniel Durant. She’s torn between her love of singing and the expectations of her family to help with their business.

The film is a remake of the 2014 French movie “La Famille Bélier.” That film was a success in its home country, but notably cast hearing actors to play deaf roles. Producer Philippe Rousselet had the rights to make a U.S. remake, and tapped Heder for the job. The team faced an uphill battle trying to secure financing in light of their commitment to casting more deaf actors, even with Matlin’s early attachment to the project. Up until Kotsur’s win last night, Matlin was the only deaf actor to win an Oscar, for 1986’s “Children of a Lesser God.”

“It’s frustrating being an independent filmmaker, that you’re supposed to run out and get movie stars in your movie and that’s how your film gets financed,” Heder said. “I would rather see the movie die and never get made than get made the wrong way. Yes, I stuck to my guns and there was a long time when I thought ‘OK, because of what I believe and because of how I feel this movie should be made, it’s never going to be made.'”

In addition to Rousselet, “CODA” counts Patrick Wachsberger among its producers, the former Lionsgate film chief responsible for hits like “Hunger Games” and “La La Land.” “CODA” was financed by French powerhouse Pathé and Rousselet’s Vendome Pictures.

“When we got selected for Sundance, that already was an incredible victory, we were so happy,” Wachsberger said.

It premiered on the opening night of Sundance in 2021 to rapturous reception. Reading the tea leaves, Apple executives moved quickly to do anything necessary to secure the rights to the crowdpleaser. Within a matter of days, the company bought the film for $25 million, making it the biggest buy ever of a Sundance movie. “CODA” went on to sweep the festival’s awards, winning a Grand Jury Prize, Audience Award, Best Director, and a Special Jury Award for ensemble cast.

For Apple, money is no object: Reports estimate that the company spent over $10 million on the Oscars campaign for “CODA,” a film that was made for under $10 million. That helped Apple earn the coveted honor of being the first streaming service to win a Best Picture win. It comes as Netflix has moved heavily into the awards space: In 2020, 2021, and 2022, Netflix had the most Oscar nominations of any other distributor.

Every year, there are dozens of movies that make their way through the festival circuit that never find a distributor, never mind one that’s willing to mount such a robust awards campaign. The way Wachsberger and Heder tell it, Apple’s commitment to the film and its Best Picture win are indeed signs that “independent film is still alive.”

“Definitely,” Wachsberger said. “We are not folding the tent, OK? No one internationally or domestically are folding the tent. We are actually going to keep doing these movies that we care about for a global audience.”

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