Record-setting sales are almost as much an annual Sundance ritual as complaints about freezing in long lines, but the $25 million–plus Apple spent to secure one of the festival’s opening night movies was jaw-dropping even in an era when streaming services regularly shell out huge sums for otherwise low-key projects.
The price tag for CODA, a confident tear-jerker about a hearing daughter of deaf parents, doesn’t seem categorically different from the $30 million Netflix spent on Malcolm & Marie, a pandemic-shot chamber drama that is basically two hours of black-and-white footage of movie stars yelling at each other. But while Netflix is writing big checks from a position of strength, Apple TV+ has struggled to amass a catalog of hits big enough to keep viewers on the hook. According to a recent survey, nearly half of respondents canceled at least one streaming service between April and October of last year, which means that viewers are starting to hit their limit on how many they can be subscribed to at the same time. Apple has extended its initial one-year subscriptions for free several times, undoubtedly trying to stave off a major drop in numbers as renewals come due. (Considering that the tech giant has also been including a free year with the purchase of select devices, that means many viewers are coming up on 18 months of Apple TV+ without having spent a dime.) The streaming wars, it seems, have entered their Hunger Games phase.
CODA is the kind of movie that might have captivated Sundance’s opening night audience even in a normal year. Based on the French hit La Famille Bélier, it stars British actress Emilia Jones as the daughter, Oscar winner Marlee Matlin as her mother, and another deaf actor, the relatively unknown Troy Kotsur, as her father. (The title is an acronym for “children of deaf adults.”) Adapted and directed by Sian Heder, the movie shamelessly but effectively deploys coming-of-age tropes as Jones’ Ruby wrestles with whether to pursue her love of singing and leave the family fishing business behind. There’s an exacting but inspirational teacher (Eugenio Derbez) who spurs her onward, a tepid love interest (Sing Street’s Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) who’s just interesting enough to pull her out of her daily routine, even a climactic audition the protagonist shows up late for. But the movie is effective in spite of its familiarity, and Heder seems to have given special consideration to making sure it’s accessible to both hearing and deaf audiences. When Ruby belts out a song, the captions can’t do it justice, but when at a pivotal moment she finds the best way to express herself is in sign language, Heder leaves it untranslated, giving viewers fluent in ASL a moment that belongs only to them. (Watching the movie as part of this year’s all-online festival, I missed the hum of the crowd, but watching at home did at least give me the option to toggle on captions and think about how the movie would be experienced with them.) It’s a broadband crowd-pleaser for a service that badly needs them, formulaic enough to please the algorithm but with a human touch that makes it feel less calculated.
Sundance’s pivot to virtual deprived CODA of what would almost certainly have been a thrilling theatrical reception, but even sitting on my couch, I felt like I could feel the crowd bursting into sobs at certain moments, and Apple must have felt it too: Variety cited the “rapturous audience response” as a key factor in the bidding war. While it’s not the first major festival to shift online during the pandemic, Sundance is arguably the first to actually re-create the buzz of simultaneous discovery, with three-hour windows and live Q&As creating something like the feeling of a collective viewing experience. But that kind of environment also runs the risk of spreading Sundance’s characteristic high-altitude madness all the way down to sea level.
Apple’s CODA purchase isn’t a traditional dollars-and-sense calculation; it’s part of the streamer’s increasingly agitated quest for a defining hit. Estimates put Apple TV+ subscribers as high as 40 million, or about half those of Disney+, but many of those subscriptions are free, and while shows like The Morning Show and Ted Lasso have garnered buzz, the service has yet to produce a breakout hit like The Mandalorian or Bridgerton. With no back catalog of beloved shows and movies to act as a baseline, the service is entirely dependent on new content, and much of that has sunk without a trace. (You can’t turn on an Apple TV without being hit with an ad for M. Night Shyamalan’s Servant, but I don’t know anyone who’s actually watching it.)
CODA’s massive purchase—a huge jump from the record-setting $17.5 million (and 69 cents) that Hulu paid for Palm Springs last year—grabbed Apple a headline in a year when the Sundance buying action was expected to be subdued, and sends a message that the company is still aggressively courting subscribers, especially hard-of-hearing audiences ill-served by traditional theatrical exhibition. But with at least one major player still to enter the streaming field—ViacomCBS’ Paramount+ launches March 4—and Warner Bros. converting its entire 2021 movie slate into a loss leader for signing up HBO Max subscribers, the battle is still heating up, and this year could see casualties larger than just Quibi.