After lighting up a roomful of industry experts and instigating an all-night bidding war, Nate Parker's slavery drama The Birth of a Nation is being purchased by Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million. It's the most expensive purchase ever made at the Sundance Film Festival (far outstripping the $10.5 million paid for Little Miss Sunshine a decade ago), and the price could've been higher: according to both Variety and Deadline, Netflix made an offer as high as $20 million in an attempt to outbid competitors like Fox and The Weinstein Company.
Best known for his performance in the 2014 musical drama Beyond the Lights, Parker spent seven years working on The Birth of a Nation, a movie he calls his "passion project." (He writes, directs, and stars.) Its title references D.W. Griffith's 1915 Ku Klux Klan propaganda movie of the same name, and it chronicles Nat Turner's 1831 Virginia slave rebellion in gory, shocking fashion. The movie's first screening at Sundance earned rave reviews and immediate comparisons to 2013's Oscar winner for Best Picture, 12 Years a Slave. (According to Deadline, "potential buyers for the film streamed out of the lobby mere minutes after the cast had left the stage post-screening.")
Netflix and Amazon are throwing money around
Why did The Birth of a Nation smash a Sundance record that stood for almost a decade? Part of the price can be chalked up to new competition: Netflix and Amazon swaggered into this year's festival and started throwing money around well before it started, and they aren't shy when it comes to writing huge checks. (It's no surprise that Netflix's bid on The Birth of a Nation was a little beefier than everyone else's given the precedent it's set.)
From a more cynical perspective, it's possible the intensity of the discussion regarding the diversity of the Academy Awards (and Hollywood in general) made studios and purchasers even more enthusiastic than they would've been otherwise. The Academy and other governing bodies are committing to concerted, immediate efforts to encourage and recognize diversity. In that light, a black auteur's vital, unflinching movie about a brutal slave rebellion starts to look like a foolproof Oscar candidate. The Birth of a Nation still has plenty of ground to cover before reaching that point, but it's off to a noteworthy start.