How ‘CODA’ Pulled Off That Oscar Upset: World’s Richest Company Became a Scrappy Underdog

Here’s a timeline of the unlikely journey of Apple’s “CODA” from Sundance indie to Oscar champ

CODA Academy Awards
Getty Images/AMPAS

Like Muhammad Ali playing rope-a-dope to beat George Foreman in 1974, Apple’s “CODA” took a laid-back, deceptive route to its Oscar Best Picture win on Sunday night. The indie drama, which managed to retain the aura of an underdog even after it was acquired by the world’s most valuable company, was considered the favorite to win for one week out of the entire seven-month awards season – but that one week was the final week, and it somehow became both the Best Picture nominee that was released the earliest and the one that for many voters watched the latest.

It was an undercover campaign that didn’t turn up the heat until it needed to – but when that time came, it had the resources to pull off a victory that had seemed completely far-fetched only a couple of weeks earlier.

Some reports have estimated that Apple’s awards campaign cost around $10 million, the same as the production cost of “CODA” but considerably less than the $25 million the company paid for the film at Sundance in January 2021. But more than one rival insists that total is too low.

“Money wasn’t an object” for Apple, one campaigner said.

But the Oscar win for “CODA,” which made Apple the first streaming company to win Best Picture, involved a lot more than spending. And it reflected a coordinated effort that came less than three years after the tech giant launched its streaming service, in November 2019. Here’s how it played out:

January 2021
At the all-virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival, Apple entered a bidding war and paid a Sundance-record $25 million for the rights to “CODA,” a remake of a 2014 French film called “La Famille Belier.” Made for $10 million, the feel-good drama about a teenage girl of deaf parents who wants to become a singer was written and directed by Sian Heder and starred Emilia Jones and a number of deaf actors, including Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur.

The film drew mostly positive reviews at Sundance, with TheWrap calling it “a sweet, openhearted coming-of-age story that succeeds in spite of its own predictability.” It also won the jury and audience prizes at the festival.

CODA Los Angeles photo call
“CODA” Los Angeles Photo call, July 2021 (Getty Images)

Apple TV+ began streaming the film, which was also given a small theatrical run. It grossed slightly more than $1 million worldwide and was streamed in about 600,000 households over the first seven months of its release. It was considered a long shot in the 2021 awards race.

The Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals showcased an array of awards contenders, including “Dune,” “The Power of the Dog,” “Belfast” and “King Richard.” “CODA” did not screen at any of the major festivals but did remain in the awards conversation, with Apple also taking the usual step of hiring outside consultants for some of the outreach. The company also scheduled private screenings and Q&As with moderators that included actor Bradley Whitford.

Troy Kotsur Gotham Awards
Troy Kotsur wins at the Gotham Awards (Getty Images)

Over the next few months, additional awards films premiered, including Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” and Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley.” “CODA” was a presence in the race but was rarely among the top five in any prognosticators’ lists – though it was the first of the eventual Best Picture nominees to pay for a spot in the Academy Screening Room, which it entered on Oct. 22.

The film won its first significant prizes at the Gotham Awards on Nov. 29, where Troy Kotsur and Emilia Jones won for Outstanding Supporting Performance and Breakthrough Performer, respectively. Regular screenings continued and sometimes included performances by Jones, singing the song “Beyond the Shore,” which was in the running in the Oscar song category.

January 2022
At the star-free, untelevised Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 9, “CODA” had two nominations, Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Supporting Actor, but didn’t win either. But when the Screen Actors Guild nominations were announced three days later, it landed an expected nom for Kotsur and another for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, a key category in which “The Power of the Dog,” “Licorice Pizza,” “West Side Story” and others were not nominated.    

Apple kept up a steady drumbeat of promotion, but Netflix’s “The Power of the Dog” remained the consensus front runner, with “CODA” languishing behind “Belfast,” “King Richard” and “West Side Story” among the films thought to have a shot at beating the divisive favorite.

“CODA” cast after winning the SAG ensemble award (Getty Images)

When the Oscar nominations were announced, “CODA” received three: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor. While Kotsur was clearly one of the favorites in his category, the lack of any below-the-line nominations suggested that the film couldn’t really win Best Picture. If it were popular enough to do that, the reasoning went, Heder would have been nominated for Best Director, or Marlee Matlin for Supporting Actress, or Emilia Jones for Best Actress – and it would have show up in at least a couple of the craft categories, particularly film editing.

Still, Apple stepped up its campaign and put “CODA” back in theaters for free screenings in select cities. Affection built as more voters began to take the film seriously – and then, on Feb. 27, the film scored an upset victory over “Belfast” and “King Richard” in the ensemble category at the SAG Awards. The cast’s exuberant reaction showed the industry audience how much fun it was to give awards to the presumed underdog, just as a similar victory did two years earlier with “Parasite.”

Another key: The SAG ensemble victory suggested that instead of a group of rivals that might be able to bring down “The Power of the Dog,” voters who didn’t love the Jane Campion film suddenly had a single, clear alternative to rally around. And so for the final month of awards season, the ads became more frequent, television spots increased and “CODA” began to show up on the displays of various screens at the ubiquitous Apple Stores, a way of leveraging retail clout that was not open to other rivals.

Apple Store - CODA
Computers at an Apple Store, March 2022 (Photo by Sharon Knolle)

Even though “CODA” was the first of the Best Picture nominees released and the first to enter the members-only screening room for Academy members, it had been under the radar for most of that time, which meant that many voters were just beginning to discover it late in the season. That gave the film the element of surprise, while its status as the most unabashedly emotional nominee with the happiest ending made it a tonic as the world itself grew darker and more troubling.

On March 6, Kotsur won the Film Independent Spirit Award for supporting actor, and looked like a lock for Oscar. A week later, on March 13, he won twice in a day, first at the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA) in London and then at the Critics Choice Awards in Los Angeles. “CODA” also upset the favored “Power of the Dog” in the screenplay category at BAFTA. Overall, though, that weekend was a triumph for “The Power of the Dog,” which took the top prize at the Directors Guild Awards on Saturday and BAFTA and the Critics Choice on Sunday.  

The race appeared to have narrowed to “Power” and “CODA” by the time voting began on March 17, with Netflix and Apple both pushing their campaigns hard. Two days later came the Producers Guild Award, the only awards show other than the Oscars that uses ranked-choice voting to determine its big winner — and in that system, in which the winner must be a consensus favorite, “CODA” won to seemingly give itself a slight edge going into the Academy Awards. And by the time the last-minute ad blitz ended as the voting deadline passed, the feel-good movie was positioned to make its makers and its backers feel very good indeed.