CODA Is The First Sundance Premiere To Win Best Picture, But Others Have Won Oscars Too

"CODA" made history at the 94th annual Academy Awards, becoming the first streaming exclusive to win the Best Picture Oscar, as well as the first movie with several deaf actors in lead roles to take home the prize. A loose U.S. remake of the 2014 French film "La Famille Bélier," writer-director Sian Heder's coming-of-age dramedy is also the first Best Picture winner to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, winning the Audience Award, the U.S. Grand Jury Prize, a U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Best Ensemble, and Best Director in the U.S. Dramatic section at the 2021 iteration of the event.

Founded in 1978, the annual festival was initially known as the Utah/U.S. Film Festival prior to being re-named Sundance when the Sundance Institute — a non-profit organization set up by Robert Redford in 1981 — took over managing in 1984. The event serves to bring greater attention to the work of both U.S. and international indie filmmakers, shining a light on movies that might've otherwise flown under the radar and helping them to lock down a distributor. And yet, for as much as the Sundance Film Festival is associated with the annual movie awards season, it's a long road (over 12 months) from the event to the Oscars ceremony in the same year. This, in turn, is why a successful Sundance launch isn't necessarily a strong indicator of how a film will ultimately play with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

A lot can change in a year

It probably goes without saying, but a whole lot can change over the year between a film's Sundance debut and its showing (or lack thereof) at the Oscars. Indeed, for every "CODA" that goes from hitting it off with the Sundance crowd to snagging multiple Academy Awards, there are many films that earn a great response at Sundance, only to flame out with their theatrical release.

Perhaps the most notorious example in recent memory is "The Birth of a Nation," a drama based on the true story of Nat Turner and the rebellion he led against his enslavers in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. The film opened to raves at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, snagging both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition for its co-writer, director, and star Nate Parker. Fox Searchlight Pictures bought the rights to the movie for a then-record $17.5 million, only for "The Birth of a Nation" to stumble upon hitting theaters, only grossing $16.8 million at the global box office. Parker's film similarly failed to secure a single nod when that year's Oscar nominees were unveiled in early 2017.

As many reading this no doubt recall, "The Birth of a Nation" was overshadowed by the controversy around Parker and the movie's co-writer, Jean McGianni Celestin, after it resurfaced the pair were both charged with committing sexual assault in 1999, prior to their accuser dying by suicide in 2012. The film's general critical reception was also far more mixed than its reception at Sundance, with critics taking it to task for its deeply problematic use of women being sexually assaulted as a way of motivating its male leads. It's possible (even likely) that "The Birth of a Nation" benefitted greatly from debuting at Sundance amidst the #OscarsSoWhite critiques made in response to the lack of racial diversity among the 2016 Oscar nominees, positioning it as a means of correcting this trend and discouraging its early detractors from being too outspoken in their criticisms.

A quick history of Sundance and the Oscars

On the opposite side of the spectrum, you have Rob Epstein's "The Times of Harvey Milk," a documentary about the eponymous LGBTQ+ activist and San Francisco mayor that debuted on the festival circuit in 1984 before winning the Special Jury Prize at the 1985 Sundance Film Festival and the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature that same year. Sundance would go on to serve as a launchpad for the careers of filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, and Paul Thomas Anderson in the 1990s, all of whom unveiled their directing debuts at the festival before either amassing cult followings or becoming Oscar-winners for their later work.

The 2000s were particularly kind to Sundance movies. 2006 alone saw Davis Guggenheim's global warming documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" and Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' dramedy "Little Miss Sunshine" debut at Sundance prior to becoming critical and box office hits that each won two Oscars (with "Little Miss Sunshine" also landing a nod for Best Picture). One year later, John Carney's romantic musical drama "Once" followed their lead by earning a great response at Sundance on its way to winning the Oscar for Best Original Song in 2008. The same year "Once" won its Oscar, James Marsh's documentary about Philippe Petit's daredevil 1974 high-wire walk between the towers of the World Trade Center, "Man on Wire," debuted at Sundance on its way to landing the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 2009.

What makes a Sundance movie 'Oscar-worthy?'

The number of Sundance hits-turned-Oscar-winners has only grown since 2009, with films ranging from gritty dramas ("Precious") to dramatic thrillers ("Whiplash") and wistful coming-of-age stories ("Call Me by Your Name") all debuting at the annual festival on their way to winning Oscars in categories like Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay. In many ways, "CODA" serves as the culmination of this trend between its wins for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor win for Troy Kotsur's performance as the crass, horny, and otherwise lovable father at the heart of the film's story.

If this list proves anything, it's that you can never really tell which Sundance movies will go on to win the favor of the Academy come Oscar night. Where "Little Miss Sunshine" and "CODA" are feel-good films about messy families whose love for one another trumps all else in the end, "Once" is a bittersweet ode to the connections we make that only last a short while yet stay with us for the rest of our lives. At the same time, nobody would accuse "Whiplash" — a movie where a grown man verbally abuses and threatens to do physical harm to a group of young adults for two hours — of being an uplifting viewing experience that's meant to leave you with a skip in your step (nor does anyone watch "An Inconvenient Truth" to feel better about the future).

When push comes to shove, there are a lot of factors that affect how the Academy reacts to a specific film in any given year. After a 12-month period as rough as 2021 and the first few months of 2022, it's not really shocking that Oscar voters were more on board with a movie that wants to lift your spirits than, say, the long-presumed Best Picture front-runner with the opposite goal or any of the other contenders in this year's race.