To the end from 2021 the buzz was palpable. The Power of the Dog, director Jane Champion’s Western allegory about toxic masculinity, was on track to become Netflix’s first Oscar winner for Best Picture. With no fewer than 12 nominations in total, it was a highlight. In March, however, something had changed. Suddenly, CODA, a plucky coming-of-age drama that caught Apple TV+ at Sundance last year, was gaining traction. It took top honors at both the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Producers Guild of America Awards, while Dog appeared to be chasing his tail. On Sunday it was decided: CODA won the top honor and was the first time a streaming service has done so.
This has taken a long time, and that time has been fraught. Ever since Netflix and Amazon started shelling for prestige content in hopes of winning trophies (and respect), Hollywood has been curious to see if it’s possible for a streaming service to take home the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ biggest trophy. Not everyone in the industry was fond of players like Netflix making big wins, mainly because the company played a major role in moving movies out of theaters and into living rooms. When Netflix’s Roma made a play for the top prize in 2019, an Oscars campaign adviser told Vulture that voting for Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white family drama was “a vote for the death of cinema from TV”. Steven Spielberg, whose West Side Story was nominated for seven awards and won one this year, bluntly said Netflix movies should not qualify for Oscars because he claimed they were more like TV movies. Now it looks like big wins for streamers are here to stay.
While it seems impossible to think that a streaming service would never win Best Picture, another point of contention was how exactly it would or should happen. Amazon got lucky early on by acquiring Manchester by the Sea at Sundance and then riding to many Oscar nominations in 2017. Netflix, while well worth it for film at festivals, has had better luck with its homegrown efforts like The Irishman and Roma. But that doesn’t mean both haven’t failed. Netflix got 35 nods and Amazon got 12 last year, but the latter only got one nod — for The Big Sick — the year after the Manchester win. Neither had been able to secure the top prize, despite constantly circling it.
All this is what makes Apple’s victory so shocking. After years of Netflix and Amazon trying to produce and make their way to the top—despite the Hollywood old-schoolers watching it—Apple dove in thanks to a movie it just picked up on Sundance. Granted, it paid a pretty penny for CODA — reportedly about $25 million — but it still beat Power and a whole host of other juggernauts, like Warner Bros.’ Dune and films by previous Oscar winners such as Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro (Nightmare Alley). For a streaming service that, while backed by Apple’s wealth of cash, didn’t launch until November 2019, that’s huge. You could also argue that the production and release delays caused by Covid-19 made room for smaller films to make more noise than in years past, but still, that smaller film would be from an indie studio like A24 instead of Apple. .
But the Oscars are only one night. The impact of this win will be felt for a while, both in Hollywood and within streamers’ offices. For the past few years, Netflix has been chasing itself for Oscar gold — perhaps losing some of its verve in the process — so what happens now that Apple has beaten them to the big prize? It will no doubt make more plays, but now that CODA has shown what a successful run looks like, will Netflix just mimic that success? Will Amazon? Will studios? Apple TV+’s win proves that the old grudge against streamers is gone (or at least waning) and it’s possible that one of them can win. The public now knows that the best movies in the world are just a click away. Traditional studios understand that their distribution models can, and perhaps should, change without affecting how their films are received.
For a long time, the disruption of Hollywood by streamers has felt like a battle for the soul of Tinsel Town — how it’s run, who gets to participate in it, what the very definition of a “movie” is. Frankly, there could be something to that. Movie making and filming has been thriving for years because movies are a huge cultural currency. They are also an art form that has been overtaken by huge companies looking to make movies that are guaranteed to sell tickets and pack theaters. For years, especially in the 1990s, when the Oscars viewership was much higher than it is today, Best Picture winners were artistically driven crowd pleasers like Titanic and Forrest Gump, winning critics and killing at the box office. The pool of movies and filmmakers who even got a shot at a little golden man was small.