But Apple isn’t just any entertainment company, what with its market capitalization of $2 trillion. And few films are “CODA,” a fictional story of a deaf fishing family and the hearing daughter who serves as its interpreter.
The warmhearted dramedy captivated audiences when it premiered at the virtual gathering that ended Wednesday, winning more awards than any movie in recent Sundance history. It also prompted a feverish bidding war — which concluded when Apple agreed to pay $25 million for its exclusive global rights.
The drama, though, may only just be beginning.
The purchase of Sian Heder’s film (the title refers both to a musical subplot and the acronym Children of Deaf Adults) could be one of the most consequential moves an entertainment company makes this year. If the release catches on, it could single-handedly take Apple from content also-ran to major player; provide the next film blockbuster in a time starved for them; reshape mainstream attitudes about the deaf; and, maybe, even give America the cinematic hug it badly needs.
Experts say another outcome is also possible: “CODA” becomes part of a less noble tradition of the Sundance flop. In such a scenario, a movie sinks soon after its pricey purchase at the festival, surfacing later mainly as a cautionary tale about pricey purchase at the festival.
“This could be one of the most important acquisitions in the history of Sundance,” said a film-world veteran who, like many professional attendees, was as shocked by the size of the deal as they were passionate in keeping their feelings about it private; they spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Or it could be one of its most spectacular failures.”
Apple’s release on an as-yet-undetermined date will also test whether an independent film unearthed at the country’s most prominent movie gathering can still ripple through the culture as discoveries like “Hoop Dreams” and “The Blair Witch Project” did in an earlier era of less distraction.
At the Sundance market, film distributors and sales agents, in frequently late-night affairs, hash out prices for the independently financed pictures they’ve just seen. This year, instead of slope-adjacent Utah condos, those sessions unfolded over laptop screens and Zoom gallery views.
Apple blew away a half-dozen other distributors, from Netflix to Searchlight to Amazon, to land “Coda.” The winning bid was so high that the $7.5 million by which it broke the previous record (Neon’s Hulu-financed $17.5 million for Andy Samberg’s time-loop comedy “Palm Springs” last year) is itself enough to buy several promising Sundance movies. (Traditionally money is just one part of a negotiation that also includes elements like marketing commitments and territorial rights; with a global streamer, though, it tends to be about the size of the check.)
It was easy for many at Sundance to see why Apple ordered the Brink’s truck.
“CODA,” whose dialogue often unfolds in subtitled sign language, offers a new spin on a familiar Sundance story of lovable outsiders. It emphasizes inclusiveness and confronts disability with a light touch, as the family, the Rossis, face challenges but rarely wallow in self-pity. A review in Variety called the film “enthralling” and an “emotional knockout.”
Produced by the French-American Vendôme Pictures and based on a 2014 French hit, “CODA” stars a largely deaf cast, including “The Mandalorian” star Troy Kotsur and Oscar winner Marlee Matlin. It is written and directed by Heder, the “Little America” co-showrunner.
Across social media this week, thousands of virtual attendees who’d seen the film shared how it both made them cry and gave them hope, suggesting the kind of future audience reaction an entertainment company dreams about.
The film could provide a reminder of how much Hollywood tends to sweep aside deafness — after 92 years of Oscar ceremonies, only one deaf person, Matlin, has ever taken home a statuette — and even serve as an antidote to it.
“I just hope that this becomes a part of the inclusion conversation, the same way so many other disenfranchised groups have become a part of that conversation,” Heder said after the screening.
Matlin put it directly: “I think we need to hire more deaf actors,” she said. “Simple as that.”
Apple launched its TV Plus service 15 months ago, betting that that a strong business could be built on its massive footprint and the service’s low $5 monthly price.
The road has not been easy. Subscriber numbers are believed to pale in comparison with Netflix’s 200 million or Disney Plus’s 86 million; one analyst firm estimated the figure at 33 million, including many nonpaying subscribers. A film sensation, executives hope, can attract millions of subscribers.
“Apple TV Plus is trying to build a reserve of content,” said Krish Sankar, an analyst at investment banking firm Cowen who covers Apple. “The legacy library is not there for them, so they make purchases like this.” A buy like “CODA” is particularly necessary now, he said, as Apple aims to convert many of its free customers to paid.
Sundance hits do require a level of nurturing after the festival, a fine art that marketers say requires building buzz, slowly and with the right people, and a skill set Apple has yet to be asked to demonstrate.
How to measure success, however, will be tricky. Traditionally a Sundance sale can be judged by data like U.S. box office. While theatrical will potentially be a part of Apple’s release plan, Apple TV Plus is likely to be more central.
“It is very difficult for outsiders to evaluate the metrics for the way these deals are calculated by the streamers,” said Jonathan Dana, a longtime expert on independent film. “Their business models are a breed apart from what we have been used to."
Cultural cachet is also a goal for Apple, which has had occasional hits like “Ted Lasso” but struggled for breakouts, especially in film. At Golden Globe nominations this week, its three trailed heavily behind Netflix’s 42 and Disney’s 22.
Historically, many expensive Sundance buys don’t match their high level of expectations, as movies like “Late Night” (Amazon) “Mudbound” (Netflix) and “Hamlet 2” (Focus Features) infamously demonstrate.
But when they do pay, they can pay off big. In 2018, Magnolia and Participant bought a seemingly unassuming documentary about a longtime judge. That film was “RBG," and six months later it had turned into a cultural movement.