This is not another article about the Oscars. This is certainly not another column about Will Smith’s extraordinary meltdown.
We begin, however, by noting that, among the many stories overshadowed by that unsettling contretemps, was one concerning a long-anticipated confirmation of a shift in distribution practices. We also missed one of the most powerful companies in the world playing unlikely David to a much-disappointed Goliath. Has a switch been flipped?
Siân Heder’s CODA itself came from behind to pass out more heralded releases such as Dune and The Power of the Dog and win best picture. But that doesn’t tell the really interesting David and Goliath yarn. Last Sunday, CODA became the first film released by a streaming service to take the top prize. One is tempted to put it on the same line as The Broadway Melody, first sound film to win, and Gone With the Wind, first colour title to triumph, but that would be overstating the argument.
Future Oscar completists will note no great technical shifts when, on their best picture marathon, they move from Parasite to Nomadland to CODA. What has changed is how films are put before punters.
Observers have been predicting a win from a streaming service for a few years. Almost everyone assumed that Netflix would be first to take the prize. The company was, after all, the Hoover, the Tannoy, the Tampax of video streaming. That is to say it so dominates the market its name is practically a synonym for the product being sold. (It’s a long time since Hoover was actually in that position, but you get the idea). Nobody uses “HBO Max and chill” as a euphemism for sexual intercourse.
It wasn’t just Netflix’s market share – or even it being first out of the blocks – that made the company seem like favourites to take the title. There was also the awareness of how desperately it wanted the darn thing. In previous years, Netflix had put all its weight behind Roma, The Irishman, Marriage Story, Mank and The Trial of the Chicago 7. When The Power of the Dog and Don’t Look Up scored this year, it could boast seven best picture nominees in just four years. The great studios of the golden age would have envied such riches. But they just couldn’t seem to win. If this went on, Amazon might beat them to the line. After all, that company had scored the first ever streamer nominee with Manchester by the Sea in 2016.
In the event, a parent company decades older than either of those – one formed in garages when the internet was for just the CIA – ended up with its mitts on the gong. On hearing that CODA journeyed under the Apple TV+ banner, one is tempted to respond “of course”. The company observed how Netflix produced its contenders and improved upon those models. Right? Just as the Apple Macintosh improved upon the IBM PC in most every regard.
Well, not really. Apple essentially bought CODA off the shelf. Back in early 2021, the tech giant paid a record $25 million (€23m) for the finished film at the Sundance Film Festival. Compare that with Netflix forking out $125 million (and that was only the beginning) to produce The Irishman two long years before its eventual release in late 2019. Netflix is also in the business of acquisition, but the manner of Apple’s victory must have rubbed salt in its smarting wounds.
None of this will matter to the average viewer. Indeed, coming after a pandemic interregnum in which big films regularly debuted on the small screen, the release strategy of CODA, in so far as it was noticed at all, will have seemed relatively unremarkable. Fox Searchlight (as it was before its acquisition by Disney) developed Nomadland, last year’s winner, in the traditional manner, but, in this country, it ended up arriving first on the Disney+ service. Most of us have already accommodated ourselves to the new reality.
The upside to this alteration was supposed to be greater access to all. But that access arrives only after you acquire the relevant service. A report last year told us just 11 per cent of US households with broadband had signed up for Apple TV+ and that 62 per cent of those were still availing of a promotional offer. A story in Macworld this year revealed that Apple had just 5 per cent of the streaming market. Streamers are reluctant to release viewing figures, but we can say with confidence that many more consumers were able to watch the supposedly "difficult" Power of the Dog than the supposedly "feelgood" CODA.
Apple’s success with the TV series Ted Lasso shifted things in its favour just a bit. The Oscar win will shift it a little more. If it wins again next year with Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon the balance really might begin to swing. The blubbing in Netflix HQ would then be something to witness, but, in truth, none of this does much to shake that Goliath’s dominance. It’s Coca Cola. It’s Heinz tomato ketchup. It’s Boeing before Airbus. (Other colas, ketchups and airliners are available.)