Inside Apple’s Tumultuous Road to the Top Oscar | Taking on Netflix, Amazon

The Oscar for Best Picture is, without a doubt, the most coveted award in Hollywood.
Academy Award Oscar Credit: MidoSemsem / Shutterstock
Text Size
- +

Toggle Dark Mode

This year, Apple has already made history with its first Best Picture Oscar nomination. Still, with the 94th Annual Academy Awards set for Sunday evening, we’re all waiting to see if this could turn into an even bigger coup for its streaming service.

The feature Apple TV+ film CODA has been racking up nominations all year, with two historic Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Award nominations, plus another for Outstanding Independent Motion Picture from the NAACP Image Awards.

More significantly, the Apple Original Film has already walked away with a win in those categories. Actor Troy Kotsur beat out Ben Affleck, Bradley Cooper, Jared Leto, and Kodi Smit-McPhee for SAG’s Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role. At the same time, the entire cast took an Outstanding Performance SAG Award. For the NAACP Image Awards, CODA also won Oustanding Independent Motion Picture over Netflix’s Bruised and other indie films, American Skin, Test Pattern, and The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain.

Now, Apple faces its final showdown: The Oscar for Best Picture. It is, without a doubt, the most coveted award in Hollywood, and the fact that a film from such a fledgling streaming service is even in the running has shocked many of the industry’s elite. However, it also demonstrates that sometimes success really can result from simply throwing money at a problem.

Hollywood insider Matthew Belloni, who left his role as editor of The Hollywood Reporter to found Puck, is offering us a glimpse of exactly how staggering this accomplishment may be — but also precisely what it’s taken Apple to get here.

Apple C.E.O. Tim Cook will attend the show on Sunday, I’m told, and if he walks out of the Dolby Theater with the top prize, he will have triumphed just two and a half years after formally entering the film and TV business. Two and a half years. Netflix and Amazon, after more than a decade of original content and five years of aggressively throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at lavish campaigns will have been outplayed by their richer tech rival.Matthew Belloni

While Belloni concedes that this isn’t nearly the same kind of accomplishment as “inventing the Macintosh or iPhone,” it would still be a colossal triumph for Apple. “Even Steve Jobs would be mildly impressed,” Belloni says.

According to Belloni, CODA has a real chance of taking away the Best Picture Oscar on Sunday. The film’s previous wins have given it a great deal of momentum, and now it’s said to be a favorite among Vegas oddsmakers.

Vegas still has CODA as virtually dead even with The Power of the Dog, and Belfast could be a late spoiler, but at least around L.A., the race doesn’t feel that close. It feels like it’s over.Matthew Belloni

Belloni also disparages those who would suggest that Apple merely “bought the Oscar is coveted,” suggesting that those who simply see it as a hardware company have absolutely no understanding of how Hollywood and the global film industry work.

Apple’s Long Road to the Oscars

Let’s face it, Apple TV+ may have only launched a little over two years ago, but it was also a project that was more than half a decade in the making — and involved some very careful wheeling and dealing.

After all, when you’re dealing with an industry filled with actors, directors, and producers that are practically printing their own money already, simply being able to write the biggest cheque doesn’t always guarantee a win. Apple has likely lost many more productions than it’s gained — and many more than the handful we’ve heard about. For instance, two years ago, J.J. Abrams signed a deal with WarnerMedia for less money than Apple was offering, as Apple reportedly couldn’t pay him enough to offset the risk of being confined to the small screen.

Winning best picture requires a delicate combination of the right movie at the right time, down-and-dirty politicking among a global body of nearly 10,000 artists (plus all the precursor awards groups), outright media manipulation, great luck, and millions of dollars to get the film seen and talked about.Matthew Belloni

To be fair, Apple didn’t produce CODA. Like many other “Apple Originals,” the company just picked up for $25 million at the Sundance Film Festival and then rolled it as its own. As strange as that sounds, it’s the norm for indie films and part of the reason that film festivals exist in the first place — to shop these indie projects around to potential suitors.

It’s also worth noting that Apple’s $25 million payment set a new film festival record, although that’s pocket change to a $3 trillion company. Bellini’s sources suggest that Apple also spent another $20–$25 million marketing CODA to various awards panels. That’s about on par with what other streaming services like Netflix and Amazon typically pay, so it’s not like Apple was exerting any undue influence. CODA stood on its merits, but it’s still necessary to get it in front of the people who count.

Belloni takes a deep dive to outline how Apple landed CODA, and his entire article is worth a read just to get an understanding of exactly how complicated this whole thing was. In the article, he goes back to early 2017, when Apple Senior VP Eddy Cue was just dipping his toes into the raging waters of Hollywood’s film industry.

Apple’s early forays into original films and TV shows also proved that money doesn’t solve everything. It mishandled The Morning Show “to the point where critics were all but guaranteed to shoot it down,” and then perhaps through no fault of its own, stepped into a quagmire of sexual abuse allegations with The Banker.

Remember that hyped “unveiling” of the service at Apple H.Q. in March 2019, where everyone from Oprah to Chris Evans to Steven Spielberg gathered for… no real reason whatsoever? After years of masterful product launches, Apple TV+ seemed more like the Newton. Matthew Belloni

From there, Apple has had a hit-and-miss relationship with its shows. However, Belloni says agents and talent still love the company since it “writes huge checks when it wants something” and “doesn’t seem to require an actual business model around its content efforts.”

CODA, on the other hand, appears to have been another story entirely.

And then along came CODA. To say Apple lucked into a probable best picture winner belies the looooong journey that this movie took to the small screenMatthew Belloni

According to Belloni, CODA was stuck in “a no-man’s land” that many indie projects often fall into: too expensive without major stars, but too cheap to compete with studio projects. The planned budget was $15 million, but the goal of casting non-hearing actors meant that a star-studded cast wasn’t going to happen.

Lionsgate initially held the rights to it but let it go in 2018, and nobody else wanted to touch it. The team behind CODA struck out their own, cobbled together some financing, and shot the movie in Massachusetts in the summer of 2019.

The rest, we’re told, is history. Apple stepped up with a $25 million check at Sundance 2021 and walked away with a serious Oscar contender. The reality, however, was considerably more complicated, as Belloni explains:

That’s kinda true. But the P.R.-approved narrative obscures a much messier backstory. Yes, Apple beat Amazon with that record-breaking bid, but the film had already been sold by Pathé in many territories. That was a huge problem because Apple wanted global rights, and the company isn’t used to writing a big check and not getting what it wants. Matthew Belloni

Before the days of streaming, indie films regularly sold rights separately across different territories. This allowed them to work with regional distributors who were each willing to cough up a smaller piece of the total amount needed to make the film. This changed when Netflix came along since it wanted global rights to anything it produced. With Apple TV+ available in over 100 countries worldwide, it’s naturally in the same boat.

This meant that Apple had to work out a way to buy back all these rights sold in other countries. This involved paying “kill fees” to these other distributors. For many indie films, that works out to a nice, guaranteed premium for the distributors, so they’re usually happy to take the money and run.

That’s not nearly as true when they know they’re sitting on “the hottest Sundance sensation in years.”

Obviously, the power of Apple was an elephant in all these deal rooms. The company saw CODA as catnip for Cook’s vision of AppleTV+ as a home for uplifting stories, a prestige-populist play with an on-brand message that helps paint the company as an emotional indie and not, notably, as the largest corporation in the world. To Apple, CODA is art, but it’s also marketing, and the company is nothing if not an expert marketer.Matthew Belloni

Complicating Apple’s deal even further was that the trade press announced Apple as the global buyer right away. Typically, such kill fees are offered at arms’ length, but in this case, these foreign distributors knew that they were dealing with a $3 trillion company and could therefore hold out for a lot more money. They also knew they were sitting on a contender for the Best Picture Oscar.

Team Apple was furious and contemplated walking away from the deal, according to multiple sources on both sides. “It got incredibly heated,” according to one person involved. “An uncomfortable experience for everyone,” said another. Matthew Belloni

Some territories, such as Mexico, Italy, and Japan, actually held firm on their rights, but Apple was still able to require most of the rights it needed globally. Of course, it also still firmly holds U.S. rights, which are what counts when it comes to the Academy Awards.

While we’ll all be waiting with bated breath to see if CODA takes the Oscar win on Sunday, it’s set to be the culmination of a significant moment in streaming history either way. While the filmmakers obviously get the credit for producing the picture, Belloni makes it clear that Tim Cook deserves just as much of the credit for “his own handling of Hollywood that most allowed this moment to happen.”

Social Sharing