If you were hoping this week’s CJ Marquee editorial would expound on actor Will Smith slapping comedian Chris Rock at the Oscars, you might be disappointed. There are plenty of other places to read hot takes on the shocking incident and keep abreast of all the latest finger pointing over who is to blame and for what. Already the episode has dominated the conversation about this year’s Academy Awards, overshadowing the true purpose of the Oscars; to promote movies and moviegoing.
That this should have occurred on the same day that New York Times columnist Ross Douthat published a lengthy opinion piece expounding on how big-screen entertainment is no longer the essential American popular art form is either ironic or serves to underscore his points. “Within the larger arc of Hollywood history,” Douthat wrote, “We aren’t just watching the decline of the Oscars; we’re watching the End of the Movies.”
Whether you agree or not with Douthat’s hypothesis – that movies as an art form are going the way of novels, opera and ballet in their cultural relevance – the piece is worth reading as he is rather adept at making his case, as any columnist should be. After the Oscars, Douthat tweeted, “If you wanted a movie that exemplifies the increasingly interchangeability of big screen and small screen content, you pick CODA.”
In this Douthat makes his irrefutable point in a single sentence. And the focus on Smith’s actions on Oscar night have helped cloud the reality that a movie which appeared primarily on a streaming service, released day-and-date in a handful of cinemas, won the Academy’s top prize; Best Picture. The reason so few saw that “CODA” could win all three Oscars it was nominated for is because so few actually saw the film in the first place. Yet, rather than wallow in the slow demise of the art form which is the basis of our industry, if we can be objective for even a moment, we would see that “CODA” actually illustrates an opportunity for cinema and a path forward for theatrical distribution.
From the moment CODA premiered at the opening of the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival it was obvious the movie was destined to be a winner. You didn’t need a theatre full of people to know it was the kind of heart-tugging crowd pleaser that could go on to become a genuine word-of-mouth box office sensation. Just like “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” “The Big Sick,” “Precious” or “(500) Days of Summer,” all of which premiered at Sundance.
Even before the festival came to an end, Apple spent USD $25 million to acquire “CODA” for their new streaming service. My hope was that the tech giant would be wise enough to release the film theatrically in hopes of generating both box office and ultimately the awards buzz that seemed, at the time, inevitable. These hopes were buoyed when Sundance handed “CODA” its U.S. Dramatic Audience Award, Directing Award and Grand Jury Prize. They even gave the film a special jury award for Best Ensemble.
I was dismayed to watch Apple distribute “CODA” last summer in about 50 movie theatres and in tandem with its debut on their own streaming service. Where the film did play theatrically exhibitors reported solid attendance for the week or two it graced their screens.
But then awards season kicked into gear last fall and, as I had been proclaiming to anyone that would listen, “CODA” might garner a few nominations along the way. I wasn’t sure the movie was capable of going on to win Best Picture as, until last Sunday, no Sundance Film ever had. I was confident though, that a majority of audiences who saw it would be won over by “CODA.” Not surprisingly, that is exactly what happened, though those audiences comprised primarily of guild members and Academy voters.
In fact, SAMBA TV, which measures viewership through smart televisions (though not laptops, computers and mobile devices) reported fewer than 600,000 households in the United States had viewed “CODA” in the six months before it received Academy Award nominations. That figure had jumped to 973,000 the week before the Oscars. Compare that to releases with titles that had exclusive, albeit shortened, theatrical release windows like Searchlight’s “Nightmare Alley” with 3.1 million household viewings since 1 February and 20th Century’s “West Side Story” with 1.9 million viewings since 2 March.
Though there are other variables to include, such as cast, filmmakers and subject matter it almost seems as if titles that rack up awareness through a significant theatrical release are actually more popular on streaming services. Go figure.
More evidence that audiences tend to spread the word about good movies which impact them emotionally could be seen in the way “CODA” slowly built momentum throughout the awards season until it became the frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar. Originally it looked as if Netflix might finally win the trophy for its Jane Campion film “The Power of the Dog.” Then “CODA” topped the SAG Awards and Academy voters scrambled to catch up with the movie. That led to more awards from the likes of the Producers Guild, BAFTA and others, with each successive prize generating larger audiences and admirers of the film.
It is my assertion that theatrical audiences would have behaved in a similar fashion with the gross for “CODA” in later weeks sustaining or improving upon its opening numbers. Heck, there are even plans to turn the movie, which as a reminder is about deaf people, into a Broadway musical… think about that for a second. If Apple had invested as much in marketing the film in theatres as they did to buy it at Sundance, they could have come close to earning back or surpassing their acquisition cost at the box office and eventually have “CODA” stream exclusively on Apple TV+ to attract new subscribers to the platform. Instead they probably spent the same amount on an Oscar campaign and, at the time of writing, currently have little to no box office to show for it.
Unfortunately, that is not the game technology companies like Apple, Netflix and Amazon play when they dip their toe into the film industry, but it should be. It is called show business for a reason.
In fact, Apple is now reporting a 300% jump in viewership of “CODA” with the film attracting 25% new viewers to the streaming service. This kind of makes sense. After all, how many times have you heard anyone say, “I don’t want to subscribe to such-and-such streaming service. All they have is award winning movies that have already been in theatres.”
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