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'CODA' is an expression of the new OTT-led era of entertainment

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When the pilot episode of Netflix’s political drama series, ‘House of Cards’, starring the now-disgraced Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, won the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series in 2013, it was the first award to be picked up by a web-only television programme in the history of entertainment.

Months later, Wright won the Golden Globe for Best Actress – Television Drama Series. Since then, there’s been no looking back for streamers as year after year they have been in contention for top entertainment awards across categories, firmly establishing their presence as the new global content powerhouses.

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And their coming of age was announced at the recently concluded Oscars, before the chatter about the awards was jettisoned by the Will Smith ‘slapgate’, when the Apple TV+ film, ‘CODA’, went home with the best picture trophy. Apple TV+ made movie history by becoming the first streaming service to win the best picture accolade at the Academy Awards, which just completed their 94th year.

Its competition set included ‘The Power of the Dog’ from Netflix — which won Jane Campion the best director award — and the Leonardo DiCaprio-starrer ‘Don’t Look Up’, also from Netflix, plus Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Belfast’, Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Nightmare Alley’, Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Dune’, Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’, the Will Smith film, ‘King Richard’, ‘Licorice Pizza’ — all Hollywood studio products — and the Japanese arthouse film, ‘Drive My Car’.

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‘CODA’ additionally won for Troy Kotsur the supporting actor trophy — yet another history-making achievement, for he was the second deaf actor ever to win the award after the ground-breaking one that his ‘CODA’ co-star Marlee Matlin won for ‘Children of a Lesser God’ in 1986.

In the film’s third win of the Oscars night, ‘CODA’ director Sian Heder won in the adapted screenplay category, where she was up against the likes of Maggie Gyllenhaal (‘The Lost Daughter’) and Jane Campion (‘The Power of the Dog’) — the competing films mentioned here, incidentally, are both Netflix originals.

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Not that ‘CODA’ (the acronym stands for ‘Children of Deaf Adults’) was the first film from a streaming platform to make a mark at the Oscars — Alfonso Cuaron won the best direction and best foreign film Oscars in 2019; ‘tick…tick…BOOM!’ starring Andrew Garfield, Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’, ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ and the Chadwick Boseman film, ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’, have all got multiple Oscar nominations, and won the prized statuette as well — albeit in lesser categories.

At the 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards, too, held at downtown Los Angeles in the LA Live entertainment complex in September last year, the streaming platforms were out there in full strength.

Netflix’s ‘The Crown’ reigned over the awards with seven honours, including drama series. ‘Ted Lasso’ from Apple TV+ took home four; HBO Max’s ‘Hacks’ and HBO’s ‘Mare of Easttown’ claimed three wins apiece; and Netflix’s ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ won two honours, including a win for limited series.

Clearly, the streaming platforms have arrived. In India, they came to life along with the first pandemic-induced lockdown in 2020 with a bouquet of original content — starting with ‘Sacred Games’ on Netflix starring Saif Ali Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui and ‘Mirzapur’ on Amazon Prime with Pankaj Tripathi and promising young talent such as Divyenndu, Shweta Tripathi, Abhishek Banerjee and Rasika Dugal.

And they have not only taken regional language content to a global audience, but also given an abundance of new creative opportunities to Indian filmmakers and writers, helping them think out of the Bollywood box and bringing creators such as Ashwini Iyer Tiwari, Reema Kagti, Alankrita Srivastava and Arati Kagal (and many more) into the spotlight.

From ‘The Empire’ and ‘Scam 1992’ to ‘Delhi Crime’, ‘Family Man’, ‘Rocket Boys’ and ‘Human’, diver original content spanning multiple genres is being produced by Indian talent who are in the midst of a creative efflorescence. OTT platforms have also introduced literary landmark novels such as Vikram Chandra’s ‘Sacred Games’, Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’ and Aravind Adiga’s ‘White Tiger’, along with Satyajit Ray’s lesser-known psychological short stories, to a new generation of consumers.

Likewise, they have resuscitated the careers, and shown what brilliant actors they are, of yesteryear’s Bollywood stars such as Sushmita Sen (‘Aarya’), Raveena Tandon (‘Aranyak’), Madhuri Dixit (‘The Fame Game’), and Juhi Chawla (in the just-released Rishi Kapoor’s posthumous film, ‘Sharmaji Namkeen’).

And they have taken Indian content creators into territory that Bollywood wouldn’t touch easily — as in the Lara Bhupathi-led Lionsgate series, ‘Hiccups and Hookups’ (with its many conversations on sex), ‘Four More Shots Please!’ (which celebrates ‘flawed’ women) and the more recent ‘Eternally Confused and Eager for Love’ (a comedy drama about how a young man navigates love, sex and relationships).

As Hollywood studios learnt after checking out their balance sheets (in 2019, out of their $42-billion box office revenue, $31 billion came from outside America), diversity makes business sense. You cannot become a global content powerhouse by rolling out unilinear, monochromatic stories.

Even the most American of all entertainment genres, the superhero movie, now is also the most diverse, whether it is ‘Eternals’ from Marvel Studios or the television series ‘Ms Marvel’ with a Muslim supergirl named ‘Kamala Khan’ (you cannot get more inclusive than that) as the star.

Streaming platforms have had to learn this existential lesson even as they were establishing themselves. Although the United States remains Netfix’s leading market with 67 million subscribers, Brazil is second with 18 million, followed by the United Kingdom, Germany and France. And of the 129 million Disney+ subscribers, only 43 million are in the US and Canada, 41 million elsewhere around the world, and, hold your breath, 45.9 million in India with Disney+Hotstar.

Even the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has seen sense and changed the composition of its voting body, representing greater equality in gender, race and ethnicity. The new composition has 45 per cent women, 36 per cent ethnic/racial communities, and 49 per cent international members from 68 nations.

For Indian talent, whether it is the veteran Shabana Azmi in the Steven Spielberg-produced military sci-fi thriller ‘Halo’, inspired by the Xbox video game of the same name, or the now-international celebrity Priyanka Chopra in the upcoming Amazon Prime Video sci-fi drama series, ‘The Citadel’, the world has just opened up — and how!

OTT platforms have become not only the new global content powerhouses rewriting the rules of the entertainment business, but also the creators of a new breed of global stars who are redefining our idea of the performance arts.

–By Sourish Bhattacharyya

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