EXCLUSIVE: In a record-breaking deal for the Sundance Film Festival, Fox Searchlight is wrapping up a deal to pay around $17.5 million to acquire world rights for The Birth Of A Nation. The deal’s still being finalized, but this brings to a close one of the most freewheeling all-night bidding battles ever seen here in Park City. It also births a major new filmmaking voice in Nate Parker, who directed and stars in a film he scripted and produced. The deal, which calls for a widescreen commitment in awards season, far surpasses precedent-setting Sundance acquisitions like the $10.5 million deal for Little Miss Sunshine in 2006, and the $10 million deal for Hamlet 2 in 2008.
The deal rivals the biggest ever made at a film festival: the $20 million Focus Features paid for world rights to the Tom Ford-directed Nocturnal Animals at the last Cannes, which matched the $20 million Paramount paid for the Denis Villenueve-directed Story Of Your Life at Cannes 2014.
Sony Pictures and The Weinstein Company bid in the mid-eight figures for Birth Of A Nation, and Netflix went all out and bid $20 million, sources said. Aside from the high bid among traditional theatrical distributors, Fox Searchlight is the company that guided 12 Years A Slave to an Academy Award for Best Picture in 2014. Many who saw the film yesterday feel that is a realistic goal for The Birth Of A Nation.
Buyers were buzzing immediately after the premiere screening Monday afternoon at the Eccles, where Parker and his cast received a thunderous, sustained standing ovation for a movie that left attendees shaken, and some sobbing. The film, which drew comparisons not only to 12 Years A Slave but also Schindler’s List, debuted in the U.S. Dramatic competition category, and has gotten reviews as good or better than anything that has played at the festival so far. Some might question the price, but remember that the New Regency/Searchlight film 12 Years A Slave, which covered similar subject matter, grossed nearly $188 million globally, with $131 million of that revenue realized overseas. That film had bigger stars, but if The Birth Of A Nation follows anywhere near that track, and once it goes through Fox’s ancillary pipeline, that price tag doesn’t seem that high for a completed prestige film.
WME Global brokered The Birth of A Nation deal, its second eight-figure festival transaction here. The first was a $10 million Amazon deal for domestic rights to the Kenneth Lonergan-directed Manchester By The Sea on Sunday.
Sony, Universal, TWC, 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. At a time when focus has been on a lack of diversity in Oscar nominees for a second straight year, The Birth Of A Nation was viewed by potential buyers as having true awards potential. Parker stars as Nat Turner, a former slave who leads a liberation movement in 1831 to free African Americans in Virginia. This results in a violent retaliation from whites. The film also stars Armie Hammer, Jackie Earle Haley, Gabrielle Union, Penelope Ann Miller, Mark Boone Junior, and Aja Naomi King. Parker produced with Jason Michael Berman, Aaron L. Gilbert, Preston L. Holmes and Kevin Turen.
The film marks the feature directorial debut of Parker, an actor who has directed several short films and been part of the ensemble casts of films including The Great Debaters, The Secret Life Of Bees, Red Tails and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. He will leave the mountain as a major filmmaker to watch.