A year later, Sundance grapples with ‘Birth of a Nation’
PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — What started as a Sundance celebration turned into a cautionary tale.
No one foresaw the ultimate collapse of Nate Parker’s “Birth of a Nation” after its stellar reception at the Sundance Film Festival last year, when perfect timing, immense hype and a vigorous bidding war resulted in a record-setting $17.5 million sale. One year later, as Sundance begins again, “Birth of a Nation” isn’t exactly top of mind for many — at this point a distant story as its would-be awards run suddenly dried up. But it remains a blemish that could affect how much distributors are willing to spend on a single film.
All agree that the rise and fall of “Birth of a Nation” had such a unique set of circumstances that it would be unimaginable that any film could ever recreate its path. One insider called it an “exception with a caveat.”
“It was a film that was received with a once-in-every-10 years kind of reception,” recalls Tatiana Siegel, a senior film writer for The Hollywood Reporter. “There was a standing ovation before and after the film.”
The enthusiasm, abetted by the fact that it debuted right as Hollywood was grappling with a second year of “OscarsSoWhite,” and the ambitious money-spending from new distributors like Amazon and Netflix helped bump the sale price up to a Sundance high of $17.5 million. A very confident Fox Searchlight intended to run an awards campaign for their new film.
But that fall, the focus shifted away from the narrative of “timely passion project” to Nate Parker’s past, which included a 17-year-old rape case in which he was acquitted.
Handicapped by Parker’s personal life, and new reviews that seemed less enthusiastic than those born in the mountain air of Sundance, by the time the film actually hit theaters in October, its Oscar chances were slim and audience interest seemed even slimmer. At the end of its run, Fox Searchlight’s big bet had grossed only $15.9 million.
Siegel thinks there’s no way a film this year will sell for as much. Some say that distributors are now performing background checks on new filmmakers before making a deal, while others say they haven’t heard this.
That a Sundance film underperformed in the marketplace is nothing new, however. Just a year earlier, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” sold for a then-record $12 million, also to Fox Searchlight, and Indian Paintbrush, and went on to make only $9 million worldwide.
“There’s always the film or two that sells for what’s perceived to be above market value at the Festival,” said Arianna Bocco, the executive vice president of acquisitions and production for IFC Films, and an over two-decade Sundance vet. “You’re seeing prices driven up by new distributors like Amazon and Netflix, but that is nothing new. It’s very cyclical. In the past any new distributor coming onto the screen will want to make their mark and they know they have to spend money in order to do so.”
Bocco still thinks that this year’s Sundance will see some films sell for a lot, but whether it’s to that level remains to be seen.
Sundance filmmakers, too, are inclined to take the case of “Birth of a Nation” for the anomaly that it is and know that every year, at every film festival, sale prices can fluctuate.
“It’s a crap shoot,” said “Newness” director Drake Doremus. “I’ve been on different sides of different kinds of sales over the years.”
Doremus said that sometimes movies are sold for the right price, though. He noted “Manchester by the Sea,” which Amazon acquired last year for $10 million and has earned $38.4 million to date.
For others, the entire idea that an independent film might sell for that much money is disconcerting.
“I’m just curious about that as a spectator. People should be nervous to buy movies for that kind of money anyway,” said “Golden Exits” director Alex Ross Perry. “They could have bought 15 movies for $1 million and put out a movie every three weeks for the entire year. That would have been really interesting. That would have been way more shocking and relevant.”
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr