EXCLUSIVE: The largest film festival acquisition deal in film history is now closed. Apple Studios has acquired world rights to Emancipation, the film package with Antoine Fuqua directing Will Smith in a Willam N. Collage-scripted action thriller about the harrowing escape of Peter, a runaway slave forced to outwit cold-blooded hunters and the unforgiving swamps of Louisiana on a tortuous journey North where he joined the Union Army.
There were seven bidders when the package was brought to market last week as the signature film in the Virtual Cannes market. Bidding zoomed past $75 million, and the field got down to Warner Bros and Apple, and the latter finally closed the deal last night. Sources said the commitment comes in at $105 million net, but when backend gross buyouts are factored in, deal will exceed $120 million when all is said and done. Collage is being paid mid seven figures for his script. Domestic rights were brokered by CAA Media Finance and overseas was brokered by FilmNation Entertainment. The film will premiere in theaters and then around the world on Apple TV +.
Key to the deal is the relationship that Apple Worldwide Video heads Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht built with Will Smith while they were Sony Pictures Television presidents and worked on the Jada Pinkett series Hawthorne, The Queen Latifah Show and Hala, which Apple acquired after its Sundance premiere. That familiarity was a factor in Apple winning the property, though the label also outbid the field. It is the latest statement buy for Apple, which just a month ago become the prime creative studio on Killers of the Flower Moon, the $180 million + adaptation of the David Grann book that Eric Roth scripted and which has Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio set to star. Apple also stepped up to acquire Greyhound, the WWII drama that Tom Hanks wrote and stars in, with Aaron Schneider directing. That film premieres on Apple TV + on July 10.
Pic will be produced by Apple Studios, alongside Smith and his Westbrook Studios, Fuqua and his Fuqua Films, Escape Artists’ Todd Black and Joey McFarland of McFarland Entertainment. James Lassiter and Jon Mone will serve in a producing capacity through Westbrook. Cliff Roberts is exec producer. The concept came from McFarland and he and Roberts enlisted star and filmmaker.
While the filmmakers have been working on this one for two years, there is an eerie parallel to the footage of George Floyd that sparked protests across the country and reforms that have spread beyond policing and reaching even the corridors of Hollywood. The story of Peter was also fueled by an indelible image, after he showed his bare back during an Army medical examination. The photos taken of the scars from a whipping delivered by an overseer on the plantation got published and seen around the world in 1863. The picture gave the abolitionist cause indisputable proof of the cruelty of slavery in America, and when the photo reached around the world, legend has it that it made countries like France refuse to buy cotton from the South. The photo, commonly called The Scourged Back, solidified the cause of abolitionists and the rest of the world against slavery and prompted many free blacks to join the Union Army.
When Deadline broke the story of this project, Fuqua noted that the photograph was “the first viral image of the brutality of slavery that the world saw, which is interesting, when you put it into perspective with today and social media and what the world is seeing, again. You can’t fix the past, but you can remind people of the past and I think we have to, in an accurate, real way. We all have to look for a brighter future for us all, for everyone. That’s one of the most important reasons to do things right now, is show our history. We have to face our truth before we can move forward.”
The film will use all that as historical background, but at heart it is an action thriller with a powerful emotional core that involves Peter’s death-defying journey to escape his captors. Using onions to mask his scent from pursuing bloodhounds, and his strength and smarts to survive running barefoot through the swamps for 10 days, the tale takes a turn reminiscent of such survival tales as the Mel Gibson-directed Apocalypto.
The intention is to begin production early 2021.
“It hit my heart and my soul in so many ways that are impossible to convey but I think you understand,” Fuqua told Deadline. “We’re watching some of the feeling that I had, in the streets right now. There’s sadness, there’s anger, there’s love, faith and hope as well because of what I see young people doing today. They’re doing all the heavy lifting now. Black, white, brown, yellow, you name it. They’re out in the street, they’re young, and they’re standing up for their future. That’s important to see, and the most hopeful thing that I’m seeing, that they’re not going to stand for it anymore. I had all those feelings with I read the script. As a filmmaker, everything I’ve done up to this point in my life, and not just filmmaking but living as a black man in this country, having my own issues, and then having children and a family and being married. It hit home, because this is at heart a film about family, about love. Faith, the idea that Peter never gave up and he fought tooth and nail to get back to his family. That is an important story to tell. The slavery and the brutality, most people are familiar with it. People who care to know about it are familiar with it. I found it brutal and I found it entertaining in a way because of the journey it took me on, Peter’s journey. What’s amazing about it is, this is based on fact and deep research.” That includes, Fuqua said, diaries that Peter kept.
Apple has been stepping it up on the feature front. Aside from Greyhound, Killers of the Flower Moon and Emancipation, the label has Mahershala Ali starring in the genre-bending film Swan Song, the Sofia Coppola-directed On The Rocks starring Bill Murray and Rashida Jones, The Sky Is Everywhere with A24, the 2020 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Boys State, and the Julianne Moore-starrer Sharper.
CAA reps Fuqua and Smith, while Collage is Syndicate Entertainment’s Roberts and McKuin Frankel.