It was a big week for Nate Parker at the Sundance Film Festival. On Monday afternoon, everyone packed into the Eccles Theatre was on their feet, filling the venue, which had just finished screening his film, The Birth of a Nation, with thunderous applause. After the applause subsided, Parker told the audience he made the film for one reason: “creating change agents.” Parker was referring to race relations in the film industry, which have faced criticism recently, especially with the upcoming Oscar awards continuing its march of whiteness. (Parker himself has voiced frustration over black roles of “little integrity” in Hollywood.)
And then, soon after his speech, Parker sold the film to Fox Searchlight for a Sundance record amount of $17.5 million, signaling an altogether different kind of change.
The film, for which writer/director Nate Parker raised $10 million (and spent $100,000 of his own money) to make over the course of seven years, follows the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, a charismatic, literate slave and preacher. It is an atypical film for Sundance. The festival is known most for quirky thinkers, low-budget directorial debuts and oddball projects. Minus the occasional, ambitious breakout hit — some notable examples being Beasts of the Southern Wild and Little Miss Sunshine, with roughly $2 million and $8 million dollar budgets respectively — the festival is a buffet catered to the rising trend of online streaming services investing in film, like Netflix and Amazon (more on their way).
These online distributers, which typically premiere both in theaters and online simultaneously (much to movie theater owners’ chagrin) have been financially successful. But for those directors seeking a wider audience, and wider change, to use Parker’s words, online premieres are inadequate. (Beasts of No Nation, a visceral, important film, was released this year by Netflix to success online, but was snubbed by the Oscars and has seen theater ticket sales of next to nothing.)
This may have been one reason that Parker turned down Netflix’s reported $20 million bid. He made one of the most expensive, most ambitious films to premiere at Sundance in recent memory, and chose to go with Spotlight, a distributor whose parent company recent shepherded the similarly themed 12 Years a Slave to Oscar success and a wide audience. While the rise of online is graciously giving a voice to some, others want their voice heard on the big screen, not the computer screen. In Utah, the cultural sway of Hollywood is well understood, even by its critics.