Four of this year’s Best Picture nominees are remakes. For “West Side Story,” “Dune,” and “Nightmare Alley,” that meant risky comparisons. For “CODA,” it’s like it never happened.
It’s no secret that “CODA” is an adaptation (its three Oscar nominations include Best Adapted Screenplay, after all), but you’ve likely never seen “La Famille Bélier,” the 2014 French film on which “CODA” is based. A massive hit in France, it grossed $55 million — the per-capita equivalent to over $300 million domestic. Worldwide, it grossed $86 million.
And yet there is little evidence that the film ever had any public showings in the United States. In Canada, it screened only in French-speaking regions. (DVDs with English subtitles can be ordered online.)
France is a reliable resource for American remakes, like United Artists’ “The Birdcage” (“La Cage Aux Folles”), STX Entertainment’s “The Upside” (“Intouchables”), and “Three Men and a Baby” (“Trois Hommes et un Couffin”). “Intouchables” was released all over the world (including the U.S. through The Weinstein Company, which bought remake rights before its implosion). UA also released the subtitled “La Cage Aux Folles” in the U.S. in 1979 for an adjusted gross of $80 million. Samuel Goldwyn Co. released “Trois Hommes et un Couffin” in 1986; the remake was the #1 film of 1987.
So why no presence for “Bélier”? It was part of a long-game plan that paid off.
Director reputation and critical support help determine which subtitled French films gain entree into the challenging U.S. market; “Bélier” lacked both. Eric Lartigau is a mainstream director with local success, but no U.S. following. It plays as a more conventional comedy/drama without the edginess of recent imported French releases like “Raw,” “Annette,” or “Titane.”
“Bélier” was acquired in 2015 by an American distributor: Lionsgate. Like TWC and “Intouchables,” remake rights drove the decision. Unlike “Intouchables,” which grossed $10 million in its 2012 U.S. release, “Bélier” never screened for stateside audiences on any platform, but holding the rights meant Lionsgate controlled access to “Bélier.”
Lionsgate isn’t in the subtitled business, although its long-term relationship with Roadside Attractions would have been a vehicle for release. Multiple sources tell IndieWire that after much consideration, Lionsgate decided against it. Among those who saw the film, including acquisition executives at rival companies, there was an overwhelming sense that “Bélier” would not succeed. In France, its release led to protests over the cast’s inclusion of only one deaf actor, who played the son. It was reasonable to assume that with a domestic release, similar complaints would follow.
Instead, the remake took an interesting trajectory: Vendôme Productions, which produced “La Famille Bélier” and sold the film to Lionsgate, bought back remake rights when Lionsgate opted not to move forward. In 2018, Lionsgate Motion Picture Group Co-Chairman Patrick Wachsberger left the company but remained as a “CODA” producer with Vendôme and Pathé. He, along with Philippe Rousselet and Fabrice Gianfermi, are the three producers nominated for “CODA.”
Just before Cannes 2019, Wachsberger and his new producing partners, which included the original “Bélier” team, announced that “CODA” would soon go into production with Siân Heder directing and writing. At a recent appearance at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, Wachsberger said they sold territorial rights in what he called “napkin” deals.
Their priority was that the three deaf roles all be played by hearing-impaired actors. Marlee Matlin was first on board, with eventual Oscar nominee Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant added soon after.
The rest — its triumphant Sundance premiere, a record-breaking $25 million worldwide deal for Apple, unwinding those napkin deals, its same-day streaming and limited theater play, its late break as potential Best Picture winner — is history. But not preordained, and possibly less likely, if “Bélier” had been familiar.
Would initial audiences, including the Sundance jury and critics who gave stellar reviews in the first, have felt the same had they seen “Bélier”? Did it get points for originality it might not have otherwise? Was its sales appeal elevated? Those are all uncertainties, but this could have been a case where familiarity might have bred contempt — or at least, tempered interest.
“Bélier” didn’t even screen at the two annual French film festivals in New York (Rendezvous with French Cinema) and Los Angeles (COLCOA). Nor did it play at any other domestic festival. That suggests those in charge wanted to limit awareness.
However, the reasons for withholding likely have little to do with fear of comparison. Consensus among all those we reached out to in reporting this story is, had “La Famille Bélier” been known, “CODA” would have seen as the superior film.
Apart from the key element of using deaf actors, deafness comes across more as a plot device in “Bélier;” in CODA, it is much more substantial and organic. “CODA” is also far more sexually frank than “Bélier” and uses comedy more effectively. It also adds an element of working-class issues that universalizes the core family. It’s not remotely a copycat — it is a reimagined adaptation.
Yes, the impact of “CODA” is greater for its perceived freshness. Academy members likely sensed this too: People are always more receptive when they think it’s their idea. With limited theater play and streaming on Apple, it may seem like it sneaked up on many viewers.
A major benefit of word-of-mouth hits is that audiences feel they discovered something by themselves. The trajectory of “CODA,” including its Oscar chances, came about thanks to strategies that encouraged this feeling, tactics that were planned from the start and which might take it all the way to Best Picture glory.