Might the Tragedy That Was the Rise and Fall of 'The Birth of Nation' in 2016 Change the Game for Filmmakers at Sundance?

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April 20th 2017

film_rec-1 "The Birth of a Nation"

Yes, 2016 was a truly lousy year; but one has to wonder what Nate Parker must be thinking, given all that happened to him last year. Talk about a rollercoaster ride. I'm sure he must be saying to himself all the time: "Did anyone get the license plate number of the truck that ran me over?"

A year ago, in January 2016, Parker was on top of the film world, the new black cinema prince and the master of all he surveyed. His long-in-the-works dream project on the Nat Turner rebellion, "The Birth of a Nation", premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to mostly ecstatic reviews, followed by bidding war frenzy among distributors eager to pick up the film. The buzz at the time was that the film was the one to beat for the Oscar 2017 race. It was a done deal. Swept up in the hysteria was Fox Searchlight who won the bidding war for the film, paying a reported $17.5 million to acquire "The Birth of a Nation" which was a record sum for any film in Sundance's history.

Well we all know how things eventually turned out, don't we?


Just a few months later, Parker found himself up to his neck in a controversy, as he frantically tried to save his film and maybe even his career, when it was revealed that, in 1999, Parker was accused of rape while he was a student at Penn State University. Though he was later acquitted at a trial, that didn't stop audience furor. And Parker didn't do himself any favors by taking the position that he was the victim, and that what did happen was in the past, when he was much younger, claiming that he was now an older, wiser, changed man. But a revelation that the victim had committed suicide a few years ago certainly didn't help his cause.

The end result was that "Nation" became a more of a liability for Fox Searchlight, and the film ultimately tanked at the box office, failing to even gross the $17.5 million that the distribution company paid for it. However whether the controversy around the rape allegations was the main cause of the film's box office failure is up for debate. I have argued that it was definitely a factor among other problems the film faced; for example, "slave movie fatigue" especially among black filmgoers who had been lamenting what they felt was an over-emphasis on the production and release of films and TV shows about black suffering and slavery over a relatively short period of time.

But whatever the reasons, one question I've been pondering of late is whether the tragedy that the release of "Nation" turned out to be might affect filmmakers who are lucky enough to get their films shown at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival (kicking off in about a week).

A few guesses:

-- No more big deals - You can forget those $17.5 million acquisition deals or anything even remotely close to it. And even $8-10 million deals which have happened before at Sundance, are likely going to be scarcer, if they happen at all. Granted Fox Searchlight got caught up in the frenzy of a bidding war which has happened before with other films; but there isn't enough room to count the films that have played to great acclaim at Sundance and gotten big distribution deals, only to completely tank at the box office.

And as many have argued before, major industry festivals like Sundance aren't always the best place to gauge reactions to a film given the insular nature of festival audiences which may not be an accurate prediction of how a film will play to the average filmgoer. What would have happened if "Moonlight" had premiered at Sundance instead of months later at the Telluride Film Festival in Sept. 2016? Would the audience have gone as crazy for it as they did for "Nation"? Would it have stolen "Nation's" spotlight? Would there have been a bidding war for "Moonlight' instead?

-- Extreme Vetting - Please accept my heartfelt apologies for using a term that was coined by someone I don't want to mention, but let's be honest; from now on studios and distributors are going to be super extra careful with who they buy films from, to ensure they avoid anything that could be at the center of controversy, or a major headache down the road.

Now in the case of Parker, as I have written about before, according to people I know who were at Sundance last year, the rape allegations were the talk at the festival the day after his film premiered. Likely after the first screening, those who saw it immediately started researching his background more of out curiosity, since he may have been a relatively *unknown* talent to them, and learned about his past. The rape case was even mentioned on his Wikipedia page back then. Therefore Searchlight would've/shoould've known in advance about it, but may have decided that it wouldn't be a major issue, or that they could handle any potential controversy.

Things would only get worse when Parker reportedly ignored all the studio's PR advice on how to handle the media, and dug himself even deeper in the whole in interviews and social media posts. I once wrote that perhaps to quell the uproar, he should have agreed to a comprehensive interview with Oprah Winfrey on her network, and actually demonstrate contrition. It turns out that Oprah actually did approach him about doing that, but he rebuffed her offer, figuring he knew best.


So, expect studios to be even more thorough in terms of background checks on filmmakers whose films they are interesting in buying at the festival, and if they do acquire a potentiial conflict film, they'd be firm with the filmmakers when it comes to PR matters.

-- Black films out of the loop - Now comes the important part. There's no hard evidence to support this, but I suspect that black films especially are not going to be on the agenda for studios and distributors, no matter how good they may be, or how much praise they may get by Sundance audiences.

Though "Hidden Figures" and "Fences" are currently doing very well at the box office, and "Moonlight" can be genuinely considered a arthouse hit, "Nation" was a major box office disappointment that may have scared off some studios and reinforced the idea that when it comes to black films, the safer the better, such as comedies or inspirational "underdog triumphs" type of movies . On top of that "Nation" was admittedly a hard sell to the public anyway (especially white audiences) which means that if buyers come across a black film at Sundance with positive buzz around it, they will most likely check to see if the film has more commercial, marketable qualities. In other words, they will ask themselves whether the subject of the film might scare off certain audiences, and, most importantly, if they can sell it in a 30-second ad, or via a clever tagline on a poster?

Now, I don't mean to discourage any black filmmakers from entering their films at Sundance. Give it a shot and if accepted it's a great opportunity to get noticed. And even if you don't get in, it's far from the end of the world. There are a lot of other possibilities out there open to you.

by Sergio Mims on April 20th 2017
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