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Sundance 2016: 'The Birth of a Nation' breaks festival record with $17.5 million sale

by Oscar Garza and Darby Maloney with Robert Garrova | The Frame

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Still from Nate Parker's "The Birth of a Nation." Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute. Elliot Davis

After the first few days of this year's Sundance Film Festival, it seemed there would be fewer big sales than in previous years. But after an extremely well-received screening of Nate Parker's "The Birth of a Nation," which garnered standing ovations, Sundance has a new sales record: $17.5 million.

Fox Searchlight picked up the historical drama, which tells the story of Nat Turner's slave uprising in 1831. Netflix reportedly made an offer as high as $20 million for the film.  

Still from Nate Parker's "The Birth of a Nation." Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute.
Still from Nate Parker's "The Birth of a Nation." Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute. Elliot Davis

The Frame's host John Horn was at the screening of "The Birth of a Nation" and spoke with Oscar Garza about this year's breakout Sundance film. 

What was it like after the screening of "The Birth of a Nation"? 

I've been at Sundance for more years than I care to remember and I've never quite been in a screening this electric outside of maybe "Little Miss Sunshine." ["The Birth of a Nation"] was the seven-year passion project of an actor named Nate Parker, who wrote the film, directed the film, stars in the film and produced the film. It's the story of Nat Turner, who was a slave in Virginia and in 1831 led a slave rebellion in which 60 white people were killed. Nat Turner was eventually hung himself. Pretty much everybody who was attending Sundance as a buyer wanted it. 

Was it a surprise that it would draw this much money and interest? 

The movie played incredibly well... Nate Parker got on stage after the premiere screening. He considers himself as much an activist as a filmmaker and he said: "I made this movie for one reason only — creating change agents. There are still a lot of injustices in our world." So even though this story unfolds two centuries ago, I think there's an argument that can be made that's it's relevant today, that it's timely and topical... [It's a] very well-made film. And the immediate comparison — the obvious comparison — is to "12 Years a Slave." That was a movie that Fox Searchlight also released [in 2013]. That movie won the best picture Oscar and it grossed almost $60 million at the domestic box office. So there is a precedent for a movie like this doing well critically and commercially. The amazing thing, apparently, is that Fox Searchlight was not the highest bidder at $17.5 million dollars. Netflix, apparently, was bidding $20 million for the film. I mean, that's just double the previous Sundance record [for "Little Miss Sunshine]." So this movie clearly struck a nerve with the buyers. 

Still from Nate Parker's "The Birth of a Nation." Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute.
Still from Nate Parker's "The Birth of a Nation." Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute. Elliot Davis

Why would Nate Parker have taken a lower bid? 

Well I think there are four words that Fox Searchlight can give them: "12 Years a Slave." And there are four words they can use against Netflix:  "Beasts of No Nation." Netflix released "Beasts of no Nation," the film was really well-received but didn't make that much of an impact. I think Searchlight can say to Nate Parker: "Listen, we've done this movie before with '12 Years a Slave,' we won a best picture Oscar, we know how to market it, we know how to generate a conversation around a film." And Netflix can't really do that and they don't have the theatrical clout that Fox Searchlight does. 

Netflix and Amazon are big presences at the festival this year. Regarding their theatrical releases, are audiences thinking: Well, I can watch this at home on television, why do I need to go to the theater? 

I think that's a legitimate question and I think the streaming services like Amazon and Netflix may be in moviegoers' minds ... they assume that they can just wait until [the films] are on their devices or on their TVs. But I think that if you're a filmmaker like Nate Parker ... you want your film in movie theaters. And even though Netflix and Amazon do limited theatrical runs for their movies, Fox Searchlight is a theatrical distributor, that's the bread-and-butter of their business. So I think filmmakers want to go to where their films are going to be in theaters.  

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