[Update: It’s official, the film is going to Fox Searchlight. Read the full press release below our original story.]
Sundance fever is in full effect folks, and this year’s festival looks to bring a record-smashing deal to the table. Last night in Park City, writer/director/star Nate Parker’s passion project The Birth of a Nation premiered to multiple standing ovations and (mostly) enthusiastically positive reviews, and after all-night deal-making, it appears that Fox Searchlight is going to land the rights to distribute the slave rebellion drama. The studio is closing a deal to pay around a massive $17.5 million to acquire worldwide rights to the film, which would be a Sundance record. To put that into perspective, Amazon recently paid $10 million for Kenneth Lonergan’s exquisite and similarly reviewed drama Manchester by the Sea.
Apparently the film had many, many suitors in the mix, with Sony and The Weinstein Company bidding in the mid-8 figures and Netflix offering a whopping $20 million to land the rights to distribute, but ultimately Parker and his producers opted to sell to Fox Searchlight for a slightly lower price. Which was probably a wise decision—Birth of a Nation seems poised to land square in next year’s Oscar hunt, especially in the wake of the controversially white-washed nominations this year, and Netflix remains green when it comes to handling awards campaigns.
Indeed, it’d be foolish to ignore the timing of this deal—everyone is talking about the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nominations and the Academy itself is already making strides to enact change going forward. The Birth of a Nation, about a slave uprising and rebellion led by Nat Turner, is just the kind of film that one could imagine being in the spotlight come Oscar time. And if it lives up to the hype? Watch out.
Major Sundance deals don’t always equal success. Films from the fest have had trouble crossing over at the mainstream box office as of late, with movies like Whiplash and Brooklyn only gaining traction after securing Oscar nominations. One of the biggest deals in recent history was $10.5 million for the comedy Hamlet 2, which bombed, and big bets like The Way Way Back also failed to cross over. But The Birth of a Nation feels like a different kind of film altogether, and I’ll be curious to see how Fox Searchlight—which also distributed Best Picture-winner 12 Years a Slave—handles the release strategy.
The film stars Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Jackie Earle Haley, Gabrielle Union, Penelope Ann Miller, Mark Boone Junior, and Aja Naomi King.
PARK CITY, UT January 26, 2016 – Fox Searchlight Pictures Presidents Nancy Utley and Stephen Gilula announced today that the company has acquired worldwide rights to writer, director, producer and star Nate Parker’s powerful slave drama THE BIRTH OF A NATION, which received a standing ovation following its Sundance Film Festival debut. The film stars Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Mark Boone Jr., Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Aja Naomi King, Esther Scott, Roger Guenveur Smith and Gabrielle Union. The film is a Bron Studios, Phantom Four, Mandalay Pictures and Tiny Giant Productions production and produced by Parker, Kevin Turen, Jason Michael Berman, Aaron L. Gilbert and Preston L. Holmes with David S. Goyer, Michael Novogratz, Michael Finley, Tony Parker, Jason Cloth, Andy Pollack, Allan J. Stitt, Jane Oster, Barb Lee, Carl H. Lindner III, Derrick Brooks, Jill And Ryan Ahrens, Armin Tehrany, Edward Zwick and Mark Moran serving as executive producers. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and will be released wide in 2016.
“From the moment we saw this film we knew we wanted to join Nate Parker in fulfilling his vision as the film’s portrayal of injustice is unfortunately still relevant today. His dedication and artistry in revitalizing Nat Turner’s legacy and place in history has resulted in an extraordinarily compelling and moving film that delivers on every level. The ensemble cast, led by Nate Parker, is committed and exceptional,” said Gilula and Utley.
“It brings me immense joy and excitement to welcome the Searchlight team into our family. I embrace their shared passion for this film and its potential impact on our country and the world,” said director, writer, producer and star Nate Parker.
“On behalf of the cast, producers, executive producers and all those who came together and supported Nate Parker’s vision, we’re beyond thrilled to have found a home with Fox Searchlight, whose incredible marketing and distribution teams will ensure that this important and powerful film reaches its widest audience,” said Phantom Four’s Kevin Turen, Mandalay Pictures’ Jason Michael Berman, Bron Studios’ Aaron L. Gilbert and Preston Holmes.
Set against the antebellum South, THE BIRTH OF A NATION follows Nat Turner, a literate slave and preacher, whose financially strained owner, Samuel Turner, accepts an offer to use Nat’s preaching to subdue unruly slaves. As he witnesses countless atrocities – against himself and his fellow slaves – Nat orchestrates an uprising in the hopes of leading his people to freedom.
The deal was brokered by Fox Searchlight’s Executive Vice President of Business Affairs Megan O’Brien and Senior Vice President of Acquisitions & Co-Productions Ray Strache, with WME Global and Christian Simonds and Jared Bloch of Gray Krauss Stratford Sandler Des Rochers on behalf of the filmmakers.
Fox Searchlight Pictures is a specialty film company that both finances and acquires motion pictures. It has its own marketing and distribution operations, and its films are distributed internationally by Twentieth Century Fox. Fox Searchlight Pictures is a unit of 21st Century Fox.