This year has been the best of times and the worst of times for The Birth of a Nation. Over the last few months, the discussion around Nate Parker’s slave-revolt drama has been dominated by a debate around the sexual-assault accusation leveled against Parker in college, and while no one knows for certain how The Birth of a Nation will fare after it hits theaters, many critics have not been kind to the film. The current mood is a stark change from the reception the film received when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last January, where it earned rave reviews and sold to Fox Searchlight for a gigantic $17.5 million. Nine months later, it's clear that a perfect storm of factors lifted The Birth of a Nation to that record-breaking bid; for context, here are five of the reasons the film started out as such a sensation.
The premiere was highly emotional.
Film-festival premieres can be a funny thing: At the Cannes Film Festival, movies with a gala nighttime premiere will often screen earlier in the day for press and industry, and the tough-to-impress, jeer-prone crowd can begin shaping a film’s narrative hours before the stars don their gowns and tuxedos to watch it themselves. At Sundance, however, the press and industry screenings are usually scheduled for after the official premiere, which means that studio executives and journalists who are eager for a first look will fight their way into a premiere that’s heavily stacked with excited cast and crew members who worked on the film. I was at the premiere for The Birth of a Nation, and because of that vocal, invested audience, it was an emotional experience even beyond the content of the film. Parker had packed the crowd with people who had stuck with him as he raised financing for The Birth of a Nation over several years, and their mood was celebratory and euphoric. There was sobbing, cheering, and a sustained standing ovation, and it was hard not to be swept up in it all. Acquisition executives emerging from that premiere were convinced they had found a film that could connect with audiences.
#OscarsSoWhite was the talk of the town.
On January 14, the Oscar nominations were announced, marking the second consecutive year that no people of color were nominated for an acting award. A little over a week later, with April Reign’s influential hashtag #OscarsSoWhite at the forefront of Hollywood discussion, The Birth of a Nation premiered at Sundance. The timing could not have been better: Here was a film from a black actor-director that could contend for multiple awards, and Parker’s strong lead performance felt like a Best Actor lock and a surefire streak breaker. For a studio like Fox Searchlight, which has had at least one nominated film contending for Best Picture over nine of the last ten contests, The Birth of a Nation’s eventual nominations seemed in the bag: Academy voters, who had been painted as out of touch for two years running, would flock to the film to prove they had solved the #OscarsSoWhite problem — if even temporarily.
Black films are acquired, not developed.
Before Fox Searchlight picked up The Birth of a Nation, the studio’s 2016 slate was made up solely of films with white leads. The lineup for its parent company, 20th Century Fox, isn’t much better: None of the studio’s 15 films released this year will feature a person of color in the movie’s two first-billed roles, unless Fox moves the Taraji P. Henson–led Hidden Figures up to December. When it comes to prestige product featuring black leads, major studios rarely make the films in-house, preferring instead to acquire the movie with plenty of fanfare after someone else has taken the risk to finance and produce it.
For example, Fox Searchlight didn’t develop 2013’s Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave itself: Film production company Plan B did all the work, and when the company brought on New Regency for extra financing weeks before the shoot began, it fell under a distribution pact New Regency had already made with Fox. That same year, the Weinstein Company acquired all of its black-led awards-season contenders — Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom — long after they had been shot and financed independently. With in-house studio films like Hidden Figures, Fences, and Moonlight on the way, this year may soon prove the exception to the rule, but back in January, the 2016 lineup still looked dire. Parker’s film provided a quick solution.
We’re in a new era of bidding wars.
Just as the independent-film market became squeezed, salvation came in the form of two deep-pocketed streaming giants, Netflix and Amazon. Long gone are the days when Harvey Weinstein snapped up every film-festival hit in sight. Now these two new entrants are putting their stamp on a majority of acquisition titles, paying big prices to serve a business model that’s only just now being written. The Birth of a Nation's team began its post-premiere bidding war by asking for bids at an already-staggering $12 million; that Fox Searchlight eventually paid $17.5 million was likely in part because Netflix was willing to go as high as $20 million. Searchlight had other things to offer Parker that sweetened the deal, like a better-positioned awards campaign and theatrical release, but the arrival of sky’s-the-limit bidders like Netflix has definitely thrown a wrench into the frantic negotiations that are a Sundance staple.
No one wanted to rain on Parker’s parade.
A heavily hyped film-festival movie will usually draw somewhat milder reviews when it actually comes out in theaters several months later. There are a number of reasons why this might be true: Film-festival audiences are often drunk on adrenaline and excitement to watch movies that have never screened before, and it isn't easy for a film to live up to all of those instant-reaction superlatives later in the year when other critics get a calmer look. That's part of the reason why The Birth of a Nation's current reviews are a marked step down from the flat-out raves it earned at Sundance, but it's not the whole story: I talked to plenty of people at Sundance who felt the film was just okay or even mediocre, but they weren't eager to share their reactions at the time, lest they step on Parker's moment. It's part of the reason that the rape accusation took so long to resurface, despite its constant presence on Parker's Wikipedia page. Though I heard media members murmuring about the scandal even in Park City, no one wanted to be perceived as the white journalist who took down Nate Parker, and the accusation lay untouched until Variety's Ramin Setoodeh brought it up to Parker in a late-summer interview. Now that it's out there, though, the scandal has become The Birth of a Nation's number-one talking point. Will the narrative change once general audiences get to see the film, or is The Birth of a Nation destined to join other movies like Happy, Texas and Hamlet 2 that burned brightly at Sundance, then flamed out?