Nate Parker’s Sundance Film Festival film Birth Of A Nation is on a hot streak that’s melting snow all over Park City. After an emotional and electrifying world premiere yesterday afternoon that saw every buyer in town on every phone they had in the lobby afterward, Fox Searchlight emerged after an all-night bidding war this morning with a Sundance-record $17.5 million deal for world rights.
The brutal and poignant story of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia was a seven-year passion project for Parker, who wrote, directed, produced and starred. He said today in his first interview since capping his whirlwind past 24 hours that the film was shot in a similarly blazing 27 days at a budget just under $10 million.
“I want everyone to be challenged — it’s kind of like a battle cry from a filmmaking standpoint,” Parker said during a panel at Deadline’s Samsung Studio. “Because yes, we need to deal with pervasive racism in Hollywood, but also in society, so I wanted a film that people could watch and be affected — almost hold them hostage in the theater, where they have to see this images, and they have to see the parallels and the themes that are echoing right now in 2016.
“And then they can’t unknow it, they can’t unsee what they saw, and when they leave they’ll have to ask themselves, ‘What is my role?’ and ‘Am I doing all I could be doing? Am I being passive? Complicit? And then I think that’s how we create change.”
During yesterday’s screening, audience members were crying in their seats and there were at least three standing ovations afterward, a rarity even filmmaker-friendly Sundance.
Parker was joined onstage today by co-stars Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller and Chiké Okonkwo and producers Kevin Turen, Jason Michael Berman and Aaron L. Gilbert. Those three were still blurry-eyed from the all-night negotiations that ended around 6:30 local time with Searchlight sealing the biggest rights buy in Sundance history. Gilbert said they were so confident in the movie that “we were in the car on our way to that crazy set of meetings last night..and we were all shockingly calm, because we knew what we had.”
Sony, Universal, the Weinstein Company, Netflix, Warner Bros, Paramount, Lionsgate and Fox Searchlight were all in the mix early Monday evening, chasing a world rights deal with bids that started around $12 million. Sources say Netflix went as high as $20M, but Gilbert said they were “really thrilled with where we ended up” with Searchlight, the distributor behind the past two Best Picture Oscar winners in Birdman last year and 12 Years A Slave.
“Every single option was a wonderful option, and they were very compelling, and it was very difficult,” said Parker, who singled out WME agent Graham Taylor as the catalyst behind the deal. “But ultimately with Searchlight I felt a connection and a humanity on just a human level, not to say that it wasn’t there with the others, but there was a relationship and a synergy with respect to what impact we wanted it have on the world – a global approach.”
Parker added that the deal in itself was a win for the kinds of awareness he was hoping his film would create.
“There is a system, that is based on race, that says African American films don’t sell, so this is a win for independent filmmakers, this is a blow against white supremacy and racism in this country and abroad,” he said. “We don’t have to accept those rules, those ideas that started before we were doing it. Who made up the rules? No one knows. Yet we abide by them? No, no more.
“I’m swinging a hammer, I wanna break everything. Subvert, subvert, subvert.”
Deadline’s Amanda N’Duka contributed to this report.