The path for The Power of Dog had been an easy one, laid out in the most traditional of ways. A kickoff at the Venice Film Festival, where Jane Campion won her first directing prize, then immediately popping over to the Best Picture stopover of the Telluride Film Festival (only two films since 2007 has skipped this fest on the way to Best Picture, 2009’s The Hurt Locker and 2018’s Green Book), a 3rd place showing at Toronto for the People’s Choice Award and then numerous other fall festivals, including a raucously attended AFI screening and after party, all before its late fall limited theatrical release (it is Netflix, after all) and successful debut on the streamer.
Along with Belfast (a Telluride world premiere and TIFF winner), The Power of the Dog became the Oscar frontrunner early on, all the way back in September the day it showed on the mountain. Several pundits tried to make late breaking films like West Side Story and Licorice Pizza, films that would have no festival presence, challengers to what seemed like immovable thrones. But, along with that Telluride stat, no film has won Best Picture without any kind of festival presence since 2006’s The Departed. So, at least for me, it was easy to brush off those “but LIcOriCE pIZzA?!” exclamations as not much more than efforts to inject something into what was looking like a ‘boring’ and ‘predictable’ race. But the film earned an astonishing 12 Oscar nominations, including an ‘extra’ supporting actor nomination plus production design, nearly maxing out on everything it could get. That is true and broad support and when you’re talking about how a film wins best picture, it’s not just actors that vote. They make up about 2000 voters in the Academy but there are 8000 who voted for all of those tech nominations voting too.
CODA has been breaking records long before it became a potential Oscar stat-breaker. After its Sundance debut, the film won four prizes: the Grand Jury Prize, the Directing Award, the Audience Award and the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for its Ensemble. No film had ever swept in this way and that wasn’t all as we know the bidding war for the film was a fierce battle with Apple coming out on top with a record-setting $25M buy. What that told most of us is that Apple was really going get into the Oscar game in the next season and that we should keep an eye out on what was next for the film.
Then Apple did something weird, and at the time, unexplainable. They decided to eschew the fall festivals and dump the movie on AppleTV+ (with a limited theatrical release, just like Netflix) in August. Did they not see the film as an awards contender? Surely they had to know that a festival run is where you pick up buzz, cement yourself as a contender and it’s hard to imagine that CODA wouldn’t have picked up a slew of audience awards that went the way of Belfast and King Richard last fall. In hindsight, it seems like it was either a very stealth move or absolute dumb luck. There was so little true buzz about the film outside of its warmth and charm as a family drama but not much in the way of ‘awards buzz’ (something clearly off the pundits’ radar in that regard) until the Gotham Awards. Despite the $25M buy, CODA was still a small, independent film, and while Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter swept the major Gotham prizes, Troy Kotsur nabbed the non-gendered supporting acting award in a field of 10. That pricked up the ears of Oscar watchers and pundits alike, and was the true beginning of the potential of CODA’s chances. But even then, most, and likely Apple, saw it as a shot for Kotsur only (star Emilia Jones won the Gotham Breakthrough Award but didn’t get any traction from it until the weirdness that was BAFTA this season). Remember, co-star Marlee Matlin, who appeared in last year’s Oscar telecast post-Sundance, was a very early pick as a potential supporting actress contender, and logically so. She was the Best Actress Oscar winner for her film debut in 1986’s Children of a Lesser God and the first deaf winner ever. This was seen as an Oscar comeback vehicle but, as we know, that narrative never took hold and it was the organic nature of Kotsur’s path that became one.
Cut to guild season where The Power of the Dog, with its period timeline, took off. Landing nominations everywhere and building that classic foundation of ‘build by guild’ to earn its perceived frontrunner status. It landed three SAG acting nods (but missed out for the ensemble) and BAFTA showered it with love, including a nod for Jesse Plemons. At the same time, the contemporary set CODA (a nearly shot for shot remake of the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier, a fact that it seems most people did know about and wasn’t widely reported) flailed with tech and below the line guilds, especially those without a separate contemporary category. But above the line, the film started to build a resumé of the powerhouse guilds like SAG, PGA and WGA (all of which it would later win) and starting to follow a very similar path to another family comedy/drama from the 2000s that got very close to winning Best Picture, 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine. That film also won the SAG Cast award and the PGA and WGA but was up against The Departed, the film that would finally coronate legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese with a long-awaited Best Picture and Best Director win. But Little Miss Sunshine had several advantages and guild nominations that CODA doesn’t have. LMS earned an ACE editing nomination and, even stronger, a DGA nomination for the pair of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. The film also landed a BAFTA Best Film nomination, something that CODA missed despite winning supporting actor and adapted screenplay there. Rarely are film comparisons apples to apples but with CODA‘s tiny haul of just three Oscar nominations – and none for directing and editing – this is one of the closest their is.
I haven’t even gotten into the potential, and historic, stat-breaking that could happen here with these two films. I could spend this entire piece on just that alone but, like an old Oscars show, we’re already running a little long here. So, in the interest of brevity, I’ll just detail them in succinct line items.
If The Power of the Dog only wins Best Picture and Best Director it will be the first time since 1938’s You Can’t Take It With You that that’s happened.
If Campion is the sole win for the film in directing, it will be the first time since Mike Nichols for 1967’s The Graduate. Before that it was George Stevens for 1956’s Giant (interestingly, a film TPOTD has more than a bit of similarity to).
If CODA wins Best Picture it will break all of these stats:
- First film to win Best Picture with three or less nominations since 1932’s Grand Hotel.
- First film to win Best Picture without directing and editing nominations since 1932’s Grand Hotel.
- First film to win Best Picture after skipping all fall festivals since 2006’s The Departed.
- First film to win Best Picture as a remake of a non-English langue film since 2006’s The Departed.
- First film to win Best Picture without a BAFTA Best Film nomination since 2004’s Million Dollar Baby.
- First film to win Best Picture without a DGA nomination since 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy.
- First film to win Best Picture as a Sundance Film Festival premiere.
It was for all of these reasons, history and stats that I dismissed CODA as a Best Picture all season, right up until this week. ‘Why this film? Why now?,’ I kept thinking. Every year we’ve seen feel-good films with low nomination totals fail. Are people seeing CODA as the salve to the last few years of COVID-induced distress and as the U.S. could be on the precipice of entering a war? I’ve always said that every Oscar year and choices are a bubble; they’re a part of what’s happening socially, politically and much more than simply voting for the ‘best picture of the year.’ What Apple and CODA have done extraordinarily well is capitalize on a post-nominations campaign better than any other this year. Everyone wants to take a photo with the cast, everyone loves Troy Kotsur’s speeches, the cast just went to The White House to screen their film. They turned from underdog to frontrunner in one of the shortest spans in recent memory and thanks to a long season and the classic ‘peaking at the right time.’
Two elements missing from those stats and years are the preferential ballot and the massive membership changes since 2015, which has nearly doubled to Academy from about 6000 members to 9500. With a heavy focus on diversity and international members during those years, what films will they gravitate to? Some seem to think the ‘warm’ nature of CODA is in a better position on a preferential ballot vs the ‘cold’ nature of The Power of the Dog. I find that to be an unsubstantiated hypothesis with no basis in fact or truth. The preferential ballot has given us The King’s Speech, The Artist and Green Book as well as Moonlight, Spotlight, Parasite and The Shape of Water. Assuming a voter that puts West Side Story at #1, for example, would put CODA at #2 is wild guessing. Even a voter that has Drive My Car at #1 might presumably put The Power of the Dog at #2 as an equally austere pick but that kind of thinking implies that filmmakers, actors, editors, producers and every person in the Academy has a limited scope of the ‘types’ of films they like and that’s simply not the case. While the preferential ballot does create consensus, no one has true knowledge about what individual voters will do or like outside of the handful of anonymous Oscar ballots revealed every year.
In the end, I’m going with Campion for Director and The Power of the Dog for Best Picture. With Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice and BAFTA wins we’ve seen the support it needs despite clearly struggling with guilds wins outside of DGA, which never really felt up for debate. The Academy has shown in recent years the types of films it goes for, the quality of filmmaking they vote for and why below the line support matters. CODA could well win and shake the very foundation of what and how a film can win. It might be an anomaly if it does or it might mark a trend. But I simply can’t pull the trigger on that and will have to see it for myself, predictions be damned. I won’t be mad, let chaos reign, let stats fall. It only makes this job more fascinating and fun to analyze.
Here are my final Oscar predictions for Best Director and Best Picture.
1. Jane Campion – The Power of the Dog (Netflix) – GG, CCA, BAFTA, DGA
2. Kenneth Branagh – Belfast (Focus Features) – GG, CCA, DGA
3. Steven Spielberg – West Side Story (20th Century Studios) – GG, CCA, DGA
4. Ryusuke Hamaguchi – Drive My Car (Sideshow/Janus Films) – BAFTA
5. Paul Thomas Anderson – Licorice Pizza (MGM/UAR) – CCA, BAFTA, DGA
1. The Power of the Dog (Netflix)
Jane Campion, Tanya Seghatchian, Emile Sherman, Iain Canning and Roger Frappier, Producers – GG, CCA, BAFTA, PGA
2. CODA (Apple Original Films)
Philippe Rousselet, Fabrice Gianfermi and Patrick Wachsberger, Producers – GG, CCA, SAG, PGA
3. King Richard (Warner Bros/HBO Max)
Tim White, Trevor White and Will Smith, Producers – GG, CCA, SAG, PGA
4. Belfast (Focus Features)
Laura Berwick, Kenneth Branagh, Becca Kovacik and Tamar Thomas, Producers – GG, CCA, SAG, BAFTA, PGA
5. West Side Story (20th Century Studios)
Steven Spielberg and Kristie Macosko Krieger, Producers – GG, CCA, PGA
6. Dune (Warner Bros/HBO Max)
Mary Parent, Denis Villeneuve and Cale Boyter, Producers – GG, CCA, BAFTA, PGA
7. Don’t Look Up (Netflix)
Adam McKay and Kevin Messick, Producers – GG, CCA, SAG, BAFTA, PGA
8. Licorice Pizza (MGM/UAR)
Sara Murphy, Adam Somner and Paul Thomas Anderson, Producers – GG, CCA, BAFTA, PGA
9. Drive My Car (Sideshow/Janus Films)
Teruhisa Yamamoto, Producer
10. Nightmare Alley (Searchlight Pictures)
Guillermo del Toro, J. Miles Dale and Bradley Cooper, Producers – CCA