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Fox Searchlight Makes Record $17.5 Million Sundance Deal For ‘Birth Of A Nation,’ Outfoxes Netflix For Oscar Contender

Fox Searchlight Makes Record $17.5 Million Sundance Deal For 'Birth Of A Nation,' Outfoxes Netflix For Oscar Contender

This year, Netflix and Amazon have really shaken up the traditional game at Sundance, by striking expensive streaming-only deals for some hot titles in Park City. Amazon, who picked up the rights to Whit Stillman‘s “Love & Friendship” in the fall, shelled out $10 million for Kenneth Lonergan‘s “Manchester By The Sea,” and picked up the Rachel Weisz-starring “Complete Unknown.” Meanwhile, Netflix has opened up their wallet, dropping $7 million for “The Fundamentals Of Caring,” starring Paul Rudd, and $5 million for “Tallulah” with Ellen Page. Why does this matter? 

“It pisses off the studios most of all — they rely on their cable output deals,” a source told THR recently. “It becomes uncomfortable for a studio to go to its output partner and say, ‘Sorry, I bought theatrical on this film, but Netflix has SVOD.’ ” This means that indie studios are now being forced to spend more money to keep up, while also trading on the kind of experience that streaming companies don’t yet have, which has led, this week, to a record-breaking deal at the Sundance Film Festival.

READ MORE: 10 Sundance Hits & 10 Sundance Flops: Why The Buzz Doesn’t Always Convert To Cash

Fox Searchlight is shelling out $17.5 million for Nate Parker‘s hugely buzzed “The Birth Of A Nation,” which tells the true story of slave rebellion in the early 1800s, and is already garnering Oscar talk. What’s most interesting about the deal is that the team behind the movie apparently turned down an offer of $20 million from Netflix. And one has to wonder if part of Fox Searchlight’s pitch was their veteran status on the award-season scene and their ability to bring films like “12 Years A Slave” with tough subject matter to big success ($187 million worldwide). Not to mention that Netflix’s big Oscar player this year, “Beasts Of No Nation,” failed to make it to the big show.

But overall, the landscape is shifting, and while there are some who take the view that more outlets equals more opportunities for movies to find homes, it’s not quite so simple. “You always want your film to be shown on a big screen with perfect sound and the best projection,” “Tallulah” director Sian Heder told The New York Times. “But that’s not always the reality anymore. The way that people consume media is changing.”

And with that change in how people are watching movies comes a shift in how these deals are being made, with producers and filmmakers forced between two choices. “For some, it’s the largest check. For some, it’s a real theatrical release,” said Paul Davidson of indie staple Orchard.

So, Netflix and Amazon are changing the game, and some could argue, ballooning the acquisition cost of movies that, five or 10 years ago, studios like Fox Searchlight or The Weinstein Company would’ve paid a fraction for, while using the leftover dollars to pick up even more titles.

And in this environment, it’s worth noting a couple of things. Of the films that debuted at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, only a very small few earned over $1 million theatrically. Secondly, Sundance is littered with examples from past years of studios who wildly overspent on movies that earned buzz in Park City, only to die by the time they rolled out to the public: “Hamlet 2” (acquired for $10 million; less than $5 million theatrically); “The Details” (acquired for $7.5 million; earned less than $65,000 theatrically — no, a zero is not missing); and even last year’s “Me And Earl And The Dying Girl,” snapped up for $12 million in Park City, barely doing half of that upon release.

Bigger gambles are being made by indie studios so they can stay competitive with Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming services who are hungrily looking for content, but one wonders if we’re looking at a bubble that’s only bound to burst. Thoughts? Let us know what you think in the comments section.

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