Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Fox Searchlight strikes record deal for Nate Parker's Sundance breakout 'The Birth of a Nation'

Although it maintains its stance as a haven for independent films and filmmakers, Sundance has become a major player in the Oscar race. Seemingly each year we get a new film from Sundance that ends up as a critical factor in the Oscar race and it has made the festival a hot target for the studios. Films like this year's Brooklyn, as well as films from previous years like Whiplash, Boyhood, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Little Miss Sunshine have broken out from the famed festival and made Park City a major destination for cinephiles. Going into the 2016 fest, everybody was wondering what the next big Oscar smash would be. A couple days later, I think I have a good idea of what film we'll be talking about for the next several months. Plenty of films have garnered a lot of attention, but no other film has captivated Sundance like Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation. The story of Nat Turner's famed slave rebellion in 1831, the historical epic (which plays off the title of D.W. Griffith's notoriously racist 1915 film) bowled over critics and audiences as the Sundance crowd was brought to their feet multiple times. Audiences and studios alike knew that this was going to be a big one- and it turned into the largest bidding war in the history of the festival.

Everybody wanted The Birth of a Nation. Netflix, Amazon, Sony, Fox Searchlight, The Weinstein Company- every studio was willing to drop big money on what they seemed certain would be a box office and award hit. In the end, The Birth of a Nation went to Fox Searchlight in a $17.5 million deal that topped Me and Earl and the Dying Girl's $12 million record (also to Searchlight). Fox was able to carry Steve McQueen's hard-hitting slavery drama 12 Years a Slave to success in 2013, so I think that it was a good move for Parker to choose the indie distributor over Netflix and their $20 million offer. The Birth of a Nation comes at a very interesting time in the industry, as Hollywood is gripped by the #OscarsSoWhite debate that has been raging for weeks (I'm hoping to write an extended article on the debate in the coming weeks, so stay tuned). It's refreshing to see a film written and directed by an African-American man sparking such a strong reception, but will it be a hit at the Oscars? Or will they ignore it like they ignored Straight Outta Compton, Creed and Beasts of No Nation? I would like to think so. Searchlight knows how to market a film and this seems to be in the Academy's wheelhouse. I think that we definitely have our first Oscar favorite of 2016 in The Birth of a Nation. Look for more reports from Sundance in the coming days.

Image Credits: Variety, Sundance

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