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Apple’s Record-Breaking Deal for Will Smith Slave Thriller ‘Emancipation’ Above $100 Million

Antoine Fuqua's Civil War-era thriller ignited a tense bidding war at this year's virtual Cannes market.

Will Smith'Aladdin' film premiere, Arrivals, El Capitan Theatre, Los Angeles, USA - 21 May 2019

Will Smith

Stewart Cook/Shutterstock

One of the most coveted projects to emerge out of the digital edition of this year’s Cannes Marché du Film has just sold for a record-breaking sum. Apple has picked “Emancipation,” a Civil War-era thriller starring Will Smith as a runaway slave, after a tense bidding war throughout the week which at one point saw Warner Bros. vying for the title. Deadline reports the deal is above the $120 million mark, but a source close to Apple says the number was near the $105 million mark. This is likely the biggest festival acquisition deal of all time.

CAA Media Finance and FilmNation Entertainment were handling sales for the package, which includes a script from Bill Collage centered on the escape of Peter, a slave who must outwit enemies in the swamps of Louisiana while on a perilous journey to the North, where he will join the Union Army. The script is based on a true story, and inspired by an image of real-life slave Peter’s scars after being whipped on a southern plantation. While the film has historical resonance, it’s billed as an action thriller, mostly pivoting around Peter’s 10 harrowing days trying to survive in the swamp as a runaway.

“It was the first viral image of the brutality of slavery that the world saw,” Fuqua told Deadline. “Which is interesting, when you put it into perspective with today and social media and what the world is seeing, again. You can’t fix the past, but you can remind people of the past and I think we have to, in an accurate, real way. We all have to look for a brighter future for us all, for everyone. That’s one of the most important reasons to do things right now, is show our history. We have to face our truth before we can move forward.”

Interest in the film was bolstered by the current reckoning over police brutality and systemic racism in the U.S., with protests sparked by the death of George Floyd. “Emancipation” was undoubtedly one of the hottest projects at this year’s Cannes virtual market.

“The writer, Bill Collage, really went deep into it,” said Fuqua, speaking to deadline. “Historical documents and also information from Peter’s own diaries that he kept. It’s based on historical fact. When I read the script, I thought, what an amazing journey, a heartbreaking and heart-racing film to have an opportunity to make. It’s rare to have a film that, on the entertainment side, has action that I’ve never seen before, real action, a guy running through the swamps for his life, wrestling with alligators and snakes, being chased by hounds, then joining the Civil War, fighting against the Confederate army.”

Production is said to kick off in 2021.

Chris Lindahl contributed reporting.

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