EXCLUSIVE: It took two festivals for it to happen, but Fox Searchlight has finally closed a deal with LD Entertainment for U.S. rights to Jackie, the Pablo Larrain-directed drama that stars Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy. The film covers the days following JFK’s assassination in Dallas in 1963, as the grieving widow with two young and suddenly fatherless children tried to cement her slain husband’s historical legacy. FSL quickly set the film for a December 9 release.

This adds another lauded movie to the Oscar race, and it is the first major studio deal for an acquisitions title since Toronto began last week.

Several bidders have circled since the film’s debuts in Venice and Toronto — word was the bids neared the eight-figure range and that interested parties included EuropaCorp. While others vied for it, it has felt inevitable that the film would go to FSL presidents Steve Gilula and Nancy Utley. Jackie comes out of the festivals with enviable awards momentum, and FSL has experience in moving quickly to take a Toronto film and turn it into an awards contender, as it did with The Wrestler. Jackie got strong reviews for what has been touted as a career performance by the Oscar-winning Portman as the former First Lady, facing one of the nation’s darkest moments with grace, dignity and a determination that the husband slain alongside her in that Texas motorcade would not be forgotten by history. She crafted the “Camelot” image that has always defined the JFK presidency.

Screenwriter (and current Today executive-in-charge) Noah Oppenheim won Best Screenplay at this year’s Venice Film Festival. It was FSL that guided Portman to her Oscar in Black Swan. Portman stars in Jackie with Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, and Peter Sarsgaard. The film is produced by Juan De Dios Larraín, Darren Aronofsky, Mickey Liddell, Scott Franklin, and Ari Handel. The filmmaking team includes cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine, editor Sebastián Sepúlveda, production designer Jean Rabasse, costume designer Madeline Fontaine and music by Mica Levi.

Fox Searchlight logo 2016
Fox Searchlight logo

“Pablo Larraín’s Jackie is a daring, one-of-a-kind cinematic portrayal of a beloved icon. Led by an indelible performance from Natalie Portman and supported by a richly talented ensemble of actors and artists, the film is one we are thrilled to bring to audiences later this year,” said Gilula and Utley.

“I am delighted that Fox Searchlight will be releasing Jackie,” said Larrain. “Their movies have been an important influence on me as a filmmaker, and it is a personal achievement for me to have them bring this very special story of a beautiful, sophisticated and mysterious woman to the world. Jackie was the most unknown of the known women of the 20th century.”

Larrain directed the upcoming Neruda (The Orchard releases it December 16, which means the director will launch two films in two weeks) and No, latter of which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film on behalf of Chile at the 2013 Academy Awards.

Said the producers: “LD Entertainment, Protozoa Pictures and Fabula are proud to collaborate with Fox Searchlight Pictures in bringing Pablo’s English-language debut feature to stateside audiences.”

Jackie first started creating buzz at Cannes, when the film was first shopped with promo footage. Fox Searchlight had rights to match the final bid because the shingle once planned to make the movie back when Aronofsky was aboard to direct. FSL hung onto rights that complicated the traditional auctions that are usually held for star-driven prestige films like this one. FSL’s offer was lower at Cannes than what the financiers sought, and other bidders were reluctant to put themselves on the line to be used as stalking horses.

This gives FSL heads Gilula and Utley a viable contender. It remains to be seen how the film that the distributor planned to push for Oscars, The Birth Of A Nation, will fare in the heat of awards season, given the backlash over a 17-year-old rape charge against writer-director-star-producer Nate Parker. Even though he was acquitted, it is an open question how it will impact the film’s Oscar chances. FSL made a record $17.5 million deal for the film as it swept the awards at Sundance last January.

The Jackie deal was brokered by Fox Searchlight’s EVP Business Affairs Megan O’Brien and SVP Acquisitions & Co-Productions Ray Strache, and CAA, which also packaged and arranged the film’s financing, and Mickey Liddell on behalf of LD Entertainment. Larraín is represented by CAA and Management 360, as is Oppenheim. Portman is represented by CAA.