The COVID pandemic might have changed the way the Sundance Film Festival is presenting its movies, but it sure doesn’t seem like it’s changed the bidding wars. Last year, Palm Springs broke the record for highest acquisition deal at the festival, with Neon and Hulu buying it for $17.5 million and 69 cents (breaking the previous record by, you guessed it, 69 cents), although later estimates put it closer to $22 million. Whichever number is the truth, however, can’t compare to the $25 million that Apple Studios just shelled out to gain the rights for CODA, after a bidding war that had Netflix and Amazon also vying for the title.
A massive crowdpleaser about a child of deaf adults (CODA) struggling between wanting to help her family’s fishing business or pursue her passion of singing, the movie premiered on the first night of Sundance, and you could practically hear the standing ovation even when watching virtually in your bedroom. CODA is based on a 2014 French film titled La Famille Bélier, which was a beloved award winner in France, but was met with harsh disdain from the deaf community who were upset about the film’s decision to cast hearing actors to play the deaf roles and use the deaf characters as sources of cheap comedy.
Writer/director Siân Heder (who directed previous Sundance film Tallulah) corrected these mistakes by hiring deaf actors for the parts, including Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin, and attempting to portray the characters in a more authentic, respectful way. Her efforts certainly worked for the Sundance crowd, with our review from the fest praising its handling of the characters even with its familiar trappings.
We’ll have to wait until Apple releases the film later in the year on their AppleTV+ streaming service to see how Coda plays with those in the deaf community, however. Surely, Apple is hoping it’ll go over well as there’s no doubt they want this to be a major awards player. Could it follow in the footsteps of other Sundance awards hits, and finally be the big prestige player that Apple is looking for to validate their streaming service? Time will tell, but the word out of Sundance is a good first sign.