PARK CITY, UTAH • With the outcry over an all-white field of acting nominees for next month's Oscars, Hollywood is under extreme pressure to find prestige-minded movies with diverse casts. And this week at the Sundance Film Festival, Nate Parker delivered one.
The Birth Of A Nation, a blistering slave-revolt drama that he wrote, directed and plays the lead in, premiered here on Monday afternoon. Critics responded with instant rapture.
By Tuesday morning, Fox Searchlight had won a bidding war for the distribution rights by offering an astounding US$17.5 million (S$25 million) - a Sundance record.
Competing offers included a US$20-million bid from streaming service Netflix, said a person with knowledge of the matter.
Parker's eagerness for the film to be shown in theatres for an Oscar run may have tipped the decision in the Fox speciality studio's favour. The studio manoeuvred the similarly themed 12 Years A Slave to three Oscar wins, including Best Picture, in 2014 and also distributed Birdman, the reigning Best Picture winner. This year, Fox's The Revenant is leading the Oscar field with 12 nominations.
The Birth Of A Nation tells the true story of the 19th-century slave revolt led by slave and preacher Nat Turner, one of the most influential acts of armed resistance in American history.
Parker reclaimed the title from the 1915 film by D.W. Griffith that is considered both a classic for its innovative film-making and racist for its stereotypical depiction of blacks and its sympathetic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan.
The budget for the picture was less than US$10 million, according to the producers. Aja Naomi King stars as Turner's wife, Cherry, the victim of a horrific gang rape. Armie Hammer plays a plantation owner in Parker's feature directorial debut.
While there are no official record keepers for Sundance prices, The Birth Of A Nation sale far surpassed high-water marks including that of Little Miss Sunshine, which Searchlight bought in 2006 for roughly US$12 million, after adjusting for inflation.
Parker, known for acting in movies such as Beyond The Lights (2014) and Non-Stop (2014), spent seven years working on the film, although the actual shoot in Georgia lasted less than a month.
In an unusual show of support, The Birth Of A Nation received a standing ovation before it even played. The moment, which coincided with Parker's introduction of the film at the 1,270-seat Eccles Theater, had a cathartic feeling after days of #OscarsSoWhite tension.
NEW YORK TIMES, BLOOMBERG