Can CODA Win the Best Picture Oscar?


It’s official: We’ve got a sprint to the finish. Coming off of yet another topsy-turvy weekend in the world of awards, Oscar front-runner The Power of the Dog has met its primary challenger for the best-picture prize. Belfast and King Richard long circled that role, but while they can’t entirely be counted out, the Sundance sensation turned Apple TV+ breakout CODA is now outpacing not only them but power too, taking the top awards from PGA, WGA, and SAG—three of the big four industry guilds, a show of true peer support. (The previous weekend, power‘s director Jane Campion won DGA.) Over a series of events from this past month, colleagues around town couldn’t get enough of CODA, either. It’s a groundbreaking piece, featuring a mainly deaf lead cast with dialogue mostly signed, but also an affecting crowd-pleaser. In other words, its ingredients have proven hard to resist.

The question, now, is simple: Is the film really prepared to go all the way? A few brutal stats to start: No film since 1932’s Grand Hotel has won the best-picture Oscar with fewer than four total nominations. Only one film in the past quarter century has done it without a corresponding BAFTA nomination for best film (Million Dollar Baby). And only one film in the last 40 years has done it without a corresponding Oscar nod for best editing (birdman, which plays as a single-take illusion). To be blunt, a win for CODA, which is only nominated for best picture, supporting actor (Troy Kotsur), and adapted screenplay (Sian Heder)—and is not competing for the top BAFTA prize—would be a total shock to the system.

After all, these aren’t random, coincidental data points. The Academy—unlike SAG-AFTRA, which comprises actors and other on-camera personalities—is a diverse body representing many disciplines of filmmaking in significant numbers. A movie receiving nominations from only one or two branches likely faces an uphill climb to the top; the more branches that nominate you, the more likely they all are to vote for you in best picture. Further, the editors branch closely aligns with overall Academy tastes, and because the Academy is skewing more global than ever, recognition from BAFTA has become crucial. Indeed, not all stats are made to be broken.

For many who follow Oscar trends, these facts are enough to count CODA out of the running for best picture. But the math is starting to look equally challenging for Power of the Dogand given where we are now—with Oscar voting about to close, and the ceremony six days away—there is a case to be made for CODA‘s ability to defy those steep odds.

CODA‘s trajectory recalls, almost eerily, that of 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine. These two heartwarming family tales were both made on small budgets, launched to ecstatic reactions out of the Sundance Film Festival, and sustained by industry adoration that developed gradually. Both went into wide release in August. Both won SAG’s ensemble award. Both faced stiff competition in a bigger, tougher contender from a director considered overdue for their first best-director Oscar (Martin Scorsese for The Department in 2007, and now Campion for The Power of the Dog). Both received Academy nominations for best picture, screenplay, and acting—and nothing else. Both had supporting actors all but cruising to Oscar wins (Alan Arkin pulled it off, and Kotsur likely will too). Seriously: They’re basically in parallel.

Little Miss Sunshine‘s story continued with a more shocking victory, when it won the Producers Guild of America’s award for best picture. That precursor is a very strong Oscar harbinger, but the Academy still went with The Department in the end. And so we look back to CODA, which itself has now snatched PGA in a huge show of strength. But does it now befall the same fate as Little Miss Sunshine, which still couldn’t go the distance? Not necessarily.

since Little Miss Sunshine, the Academy has shifted its best-picture-voting system to one of a preferential ballot, which can favor exactly these kinds of films: accessible, feel-good consensus choices. It also allows one to get more of a sense of film support while on the campaign circuit. My colleague Rebecca Ford and I have attended a slew of events around town as of late, and the CODA team pops wherever we go. They’re met with loud applause, tons of meet-and-greets, and nothing but smiles in their direction. In our last cycle of in-person awards campaigning, in early 2020, it was this kind of momentum that convinced me to predict parasite would win the top Oscar.

For a quick temperature check on where we’re at, overall: Early heavyweight Belfast couldn’t pick up anything but Best British Film on home turf at BAFTA; coupled with a total guild shutout, that should rule it out for the top Oscar. (Watch for it to eke out best original screenplay, though, which remains a battle.) King Richard similarly lacks the momentum to go all the way without PGA or SAG stumping for it, even if its ACE editing win proves votes can go its way in unexpected fashion. Effectively, they’re running behind. So we’re left with a two-horse race barring a major twist.

Of course, as it has for many months now, The Power of the Dog rests on the other side of that equation. I’ve covered this film more than any other since its fall-festival blitz, and its steady dominance of the awards conversation can’t be denied. Indeed, few expected the Netflix Western to lead all films on Oscar nominations morning; beyond Campion’s unchallenged candidacy in director, its winning chances had arguably been underrated until then.

Earning the most nominations does not, in this Oscar era, translate to being the most likely to win best picture. Just ask recent craft plays like limp, joker, or Roma. But unlike those titles, power outdid the obvious below-the-line contender, dune, by showing strength in surprising areas. The movie was not expected to be nominated for production design, and was considered on-the-bubble in other categories like best sound. That each of the branches went for the film independently says a great deal, as does the acting membership not feeling content with just three nods for its performers, also nominating a fourth in relatively unsung cast member Jesse Plemons. The movie overperformed across the board.

All of this to say that it’s the exact opposite of what we see in the numbers with CODA, which only showed up where it was most assured. (Marlee Matlin was in the supporting-actress conversation, for instance, but missed out despite several surprises in that category.) It will not beat power with the might of a deep Academy embrace. The question is whether it’ll be highly placed on enough ballots to dislodge a more passionately loved, but also more divisive, front-runner, the formula which yielded an upset in its favor at the PGAs.

power has won more best-picture prizes than any other film, led critics’ year-end top 10 lists by a significant margin, and is almost surely the international preference over CODA. (power won the BAFTA for best picture, in addition to other awards from festivals around the world.) This is the big selling point for Netflix: Compared to just a few years ago, even, the Academy is skewing more global than ever, and in significantly shifting numbers. The streamer is banking on that trend to pull this off.

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