Sundance: The Math Behind Fox Searchlight’s Record-Shattering ‘Birth of a Nation’ Deal

The Birth of a Nation Sundance
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Nate Parker may be racking up the airline miles to promote “The Birth of a Nation.” The director and star behind the slave revolt drama has told Fox Searchlight that after spending seven years of his life bringing the story of Nat Turner to the screen, he’s going to be the face and voice of his passion project.

According to insiders, Parker’s deep connection to the material and his willingness to go door-to-door to promote the picture were major reasons that “The Birth of a Nation” landed the biggest deal in the history of the Sundance Film Festival: a $17.5 million payday from Fox Searchlight for global rights.

Parker’s story, and his multi-hypenate status, is expected to be a key component in the marketing outreach of the film. With the possible exception of Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane” or Warren Beatty in “Reds,” few have managed to successfully write, direct, produce, star in a film as Parker did with “The Birth of a Nation.” (There are always the counter-examples: see what happened to Angelina Jolie on “By the Sea.”) Details about the film’s rollout have yet to be discussed, but Parker has envisioned holding Q&A’s and discussions across the country, where he’ll tie the themes of the movie with the current nationwide dialogue about race.

“The Birth of a Nation” represents a big risk for the studio. The movie is violent and will no doubt be rated R. A traditional independent distributor or mini-major would have to push “The Birth of a Nation” to roughly $26 million at the domestic box office before its ancillary television deals would kick in and the film would be profitable. To break even purely in its theatrical run, most distributors would need the picture to do more than $50 million. For comparison’s sake, many of this year’s award season pictures — like “Brooklyn,” “Room” and “Spotlight” — have yet to cross that threshold.

But Fox Searchlight was able to justify the expenditure because its economics are different. Because it is part of a major studio — 20th Century Fox is its corporate cousin — Searchlight releases appear on HBO. The studio also has foreign television and satellite deals that bring in additional revenue and could lower the break-even point by 25% or more, sources say.

To get the rights, Fox Searchlight agreed to release “The Birth of a Nation” at some point this year on at least 1,500 screens, Variety has learned. That wide a release can require spending as much as $15 million on promotion and advertising. Again, however, Fox Searchlight executives believed that they might be able to save on some of the spending. News of the historic nature of the deal has resulted in extensive media coverage that has raised awareness. A release date hasn’t even been decided on, but the story of the film and Parker’s drive to make the picture have been picked up by most major news outlets — a rarity for Sundance releases.

“The Birth of a Nation” could also tap into the under-represented African American audience, a powerful buying block that helped churn out such hits as “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and “Django Unchained.” “12 Years a Slave,” another Fox Searchlight release about slavery in the antebellum South, won a Best Picture Oscar and went on to earn an impressive $187.7 million globally. It did have the benefit of major stars such as Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender in its cast, however — a luxury that “The Birth of a Nation” does not enjoy.

Fox Searchlight’s bid wasn’t the highest offer on the table. Netflix offered $20 million for “The Birth of a Nation,” but sources say that Parker was turned off by the idea of premiering the film on the streaming platform at the same time as it theatrical debut, a model that the company used to release last year’s “Beasts of No Nation.” That film failed to make much of an impact at the box office, although the company claims it was streamed by millions of subscribers.

Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios also offered $20 million, while the Weinstein Company and Sony were among the companies offering up bids, with the Weinstein Company making a $14 million offer. To get a meeting with the filmmakers and the sales agent, WME, bidders had to provide offers of at least $12 million, sources say.

Other sources add that Parker, who owned a significant stake in the movie, had a great deal of control over who emerged as the winning distributor.

The film will also have the advantage of playing into the zeitgeist, given that Hollywood has come under fire for nominating only white actors at the Oscars for the second year in a row. Against the backdrop of Hollywood being too white, “The Birth of a Nation” could tap into that outrage to be a major contender when next year’s Oscar nominations are announced. It helps that early notices have been strong. Variety critic called the picture “searingly impressive” and predicted it would “stir deep emotion.”

Fox Searchlight’s success with the Academy helped close the deal with Parker. The studio has scored 13 Best Picture nominees in the last 12 years and won three in the last 10. Given the controversy surrounding this year’s nominees and the re-emergence of the #OscarsSoWhite movement, one rival studio executive predicted “The Birth of a Nation” would get a warm reception from Oscar voters.

“Hollywood may be slow, but it isn’t stupid,” the executive said.