• `Connection' to writer-director let studio's lower bid prevail
  • Film chronicles pre-Civil War slave revolt led by Nat Turner

Fox Searchlight snapped up distribution rights to “The Birth of a Nation,” a movie about a slave revolt in the pre-Civil War U.S., winning out over Netflix Inc. in one of the biggest acquisitions ever at the Sundance Film Festival, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.

The Birth of a Nation
The Birth of a Nation
Source: Sundance Institute

The independent film division of 21st Century Fox Inc. agreed to pay $17.5 million, one of the top prices ever at the festival, said the person, who asked not to be named because the negotiations were private. Competing offers included a $20 million bid from Netflix, they said. A Fox Searchlight spokesman confirmed the acquisition Tuesday, without providing terms. Netflix didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Fox has backed several recent Oscar winners, including “12 Years a Slave,” which won best picture in 2014, and “Birdman,” last year’s winner. It’s also certain to give the film an extended run in theaters, unlike Netflix. The bidding highlights the competition for sought-after films, driven partly by the growing role of digital distributors such as Amazon.com Inc. and Netflix. Both streaming services have made purchases since the annual Park City, Utah-based Sundance festival started last week.

Nate Parker
Nate Parker
Photographer: George Pimentel/Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival

“Ultimately with Searchlight I felt a connection,” Nate Parker, who co-wrote, directed and co-produced the picture, said in a webcast from Sundance. “Not to say that it wasn’t there with the others, but there was a relationship, there was a synergy with respect to the impact we wanted it to have on the world and the global approach.”

“Birth of a Nation” tells the true story of the 19th century slave revolt led by Nat Turner, one of the most influential acts of armed resistance in American history. Parker reclaimed the title from the famously racist 1915 film by D.W. Griffith. The budget for the picture was less than $10 million, according to the producers.

Fox Searchlight

The talent agency William Morris Endeavor represented the filmmakers. The website Deadline.com reported the sale of the film earlier Tuesday, saying Sony Corp.’s film division and the Weinstein Co. were also bidders.

Studios typically offer profit participation and Fox Searchlight has a strong awards track record, Joe Pichirallo of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and a former 20th Century Fox executive, said in a phone interview.

The sale coincides with growing pressure on the film industry to increase opportunities for minorities and women. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which hands out the Oscars, changed its membership and voting rules last week following an outcry over a second straight year of all-white acting nominees.

“For me, calling the film ‘The Birth of a Nation’ was about reclaiming those words, about righting a wrong -- and turning the title into something that can inspire,” Parker wrote earlier in press notes for the film. It opened to a standing ovation Monday on its worldwide debut at the film festival founded by Robert Redford.

This year, Fox has the most Oscar nominations of any studio, with the frontier revenge drama “The Revenant” leading the field with 12.

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