But Apple isn’t just any entertainment company, 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 their interpreter.
The film, a 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 the exclusive right to stream the movie on Apple TV Plus.
But the drama is only beginning.
The purchase of Sian Heder’s “CODA” (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; reshape mainstream attitudes about the deaf; and even give America the cinematic hug it badly needs.
Experts say another scenario is possible: “CODA” might become part of a less noble tradition, that of the big Sundance sale that sinks soon after, surfacing only as a cautionary tale for not overspending at a festival.
“This could be one of the most important acquisitions in the history of Sundance,” said a film-world veteran who, like many who attended the festival, was as shocked by the size of the deal as they were passionate in keeping their feelings about it private, and 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 test whether an independent film discovered at the country’s most prominent movie gathering can still ripple through the culture as titles like “Hoop Dreams” and “The Blair Witch Project” once did.
The Sundance “market,” where film distributors and sales agents hash out prices for the independently financed pictures they’ve just seen, this year unfolded over laptop screens and Zoom gallery views instead of slope-adjacent Utah condos. With traditional film distributors, the negotiations aren’t just about money but other contract clauses, like what rights would be retained by the seller and what marketing-budget commitments would be made by the buyer. With a global streamer, though, it tends to be about the size of the check.
Apple blew away a half-dozen other distributors, from Netflix to Searchlight to Amazon. The total is so high that the $ 7.5 million by which it broke the previous record — $ 17.5 million for worldwide rights to the Andy Samberg time-loop comedy “Palm Springs” — is itself enough to buy several promising Sundance movies.
It was easy for many at Sundance to see why Apple ordered the Brink’s truck.
“CODA,” from the French American company Vendôme Pictures and based on a 2014 French hit, is directed by “Orange Is the New Black” veteran Heder. It stars a largely deaf cast, including “The Mandalorian” star Troy Kotsur and Oscar winner Marlee Matlin.
The film, whose dialogue often unfolds in subtitled sign language, offers a new spin on a more familiar Sundance story of lovable outsiders. It emphasizes inclusiveness and confronts disability, but lightly, with the family facing challenges but rarely wallowing in self-pity. The Variety review called it “enthralling” and an “emotional knockout.”
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.
The film could also serve as a reminder of how much Hollywood sweeps aside deafness and even counteracts the problem — after 92 years of Oscar ceremonies, only one deaf person, Matlin, has ever taken home a statuette.
“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. “There is room for new stories set in the disability world.”
Matlin put it directly: “I think we need to hire more deaf actors,” she said. “Simple as that.”
It is not the only responsibility “CODA” will bear.
Apple launched its TV Plus service 15 months ago, betting that the massive footprint and low $ 5 monthly price would be enough to establish a brisk streaming-video business.
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 number 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 the 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 require a level of nurturing after the festival, a fine art marketers say is not as simple as just buying and releasing a movie. It’s building buzz, slowly, with the right people, a skill set Apple has yet to be called on to demonstrate.
How to measure success, however, will be tricky. Traditionally, a Sundance sale can be judged by simple data: U.S. box office or the sale of international rights. But Apple buys global rights and puts the film primarily on its service.
“It is very difficult for outsiders to evaluate the metrics for the way these deals are calculated by the streamers,” said Jonathan Dana, a producer, former sales agent and expert on the independent film world. “Their business models are a breed apart from what we have been used to by conventional old-school distributors.”
Cultural cachet is another goal for Apple, which despite the occasional hit such as “Ted Lasso” has struggled for breakouts, especially on the film side. In the Golden Globe nominations this week, its three trailed heavily behind Netflix’s 42 and Disney’s 22.
Historically, many big Sundance acquisitions don’t match their high level of expectations. But when they do pay off, they can pay off big. In 2018, the film companies Magnolia and Participant bought a seemingly unassuming documentary about a longtime judge. That film was “RBG,” and six months later, they had turned it into a cultural movement.