Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation screened at Sundance last night to what’s being described as a “thunderous” standing ovation, one that lasted several minutes, included “shaken and sobbing” patrons, and overall indicated that the famously fickle audience was here for Parker’s directing debut. Clearly, several studio heads were paying attention: Deadline reports that Birth almost immediately incited an expensive bidding war, with Sony Pictures, The Weinstein Company, Netflix, and Fox Searchlight duking it out for the rights to the film. Sony and the deep-pocketed Weinsteins bid in the mid-eight figures, and Netflix put up a stunning $20 million (this after the company announced they were spending a cool $6 billion on programming this year, no big deal), but ultimately, Fox Searchlight emerged victorious, paying around $17.5 million to acquire international rights to the film.
The deal’s not totally final yet, but, according to Deadline, it still marks one of the “most freewheeling, all-night bidding battles ever seen in Park City,” with its final number beating the $10.5 million deal for Little Miss Sunshine in 2006 and the $10 million deal for Hamlet 2 in 2008. Why did Fox win with a lower bid than Netflix, though? Likely because, explains Deadline, the studio helped 12 Years a Slave win an Oscar for Best Picture back in 2013, and Parker’s film is already garnering comparisons to Steve McQueen’s film. Like 12 Years A Slave, The Birth of a Nation follows a young black man as he fights for freedom from slavery: Nat Turner (played by Parker), a former slave who led a liberation movement in 1831 to free enslaved African-Americans in Virginia. Turner’s attempt led to a “violent retaliation,” one that Parker apparently recreates with brutal scenes of crushed skulls and burning bodies.
The Birth of a Nation — which boldly takes its title from D.W. Griffith’s famously racist 1915 film of the same name — is already garnering rave reviews, with Bilge Ebiri’s Vulture calling it “a beautiful, reflective film even as it is also a brutal, visceral one,” and Variety‘s Justin Chang praising it as a “biographical drama steeped equally in grace and horror,” and noting that its timing — coinciding with the Black Lives Matter movement and the continuous fight for racial equality in America — is ideal for provoking debate, discussion, and understanding. “The Birth of a Nation exists to provoke a serious debate about the necessity and limitations of empathy, the morality of retaliatory violence, and the ongoing black struggle for justice and equality in this country. It earns that debate and then some.”
Of course, The Birth of a Nation is also a hugely promising vehicle for Parker, who worked to write, direct, and produce the film for nearly seven years and, by all accounts, threw everything he had into making it a reality. As he told The Hollywood Reporter, he was regularly informed that the film wouldn’t “work” because “movies with black leads don’t play internationally; a period film with big fight scenes would be too expensive; it was too violent; it wouldn’t work without a big box-office star leading it; Turner was too controversial.” Now, Birth represents one of the biggest deals ever made at any film festival, encroaching on the $20 million Focus paid for Nocturnal Animals at Cannes 2015 and that Paramount paid for Story of Your Life at Cannes 2014. Some might call that “working.”