With a title like The Birth of the Nation and a historical story about a slave rebellion,Nate Parker’s feature directing debut was bound to be one of the most talked-about titles of Sundance. But now it’s proven to be bigger than anyone, other than maybe Parker himself, could have imagined. Fox Searchlight has reportedly paid $17.5 million for the film, an enormous sum that rivals what any Sundance film has ever been picked up for—and a financial promise that the indie distribution arm of 20th Century Fox will be betting big on Parker come awards season.
According to Variety the film, which recreates the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in 1831, was at the center of a classic all-night bidding war, with The Weinstein Company, Netflix, and Sony also vying for the rights. Previously the $10 million that Amazon paid for Kenneth Lonergan’s dreary but captivatingManchester by the Sea had seemed like the high water mark for the festival, particularly given the uncertain fate of any indie film in the modern moviegoing market.
Fox Searchlight has a long history with Sundance acquisitions that, like any other company’s, is a bit checkered; they paid $10 million for Little Miss Sunshine at the 2006 festival and went on to turn that film into a summer box office hit and a best picture Oscar nominee. They also paid $12 million last year, at the time a Sundance record, for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the most buzzed-about film of that festival that went on to anemic box office and virtually no awards season presence. Making films is hard; knowing how much to pay for films, and then putting them in front of audiences, is sometimes even harder.
Searchlight also won a best picture Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, not a festival acquisition but a film, likeBirth of a Nation, about American slavery, and perhaps an even harder sell to audiences than Parker’s film, which with its rousing scene of slave rebellion is earning comparisons to Braveheart. That was a best picture winner too, you might remember. In theory it’s too early for Oscar buzz, but that $17.5 million deal means the race has very much begun.
Vanity Fair -