Inside Historic Sundance Bidding War for ‘Birth of a Nation’: Why Netflix Offered More But Still Lost

Nate Parker’s festival sensation fetched bids of up to $20 million in an all-night studio showdown

Birth of a Nation Sundance
courtesy of Fox Searchlight

The Sundance bidding war over “The Birth of a Nation” started immediately after Monday’s premiere of the much-anticipated slave revolt movie written, produced, directed by and starring Nate Parker.

Buyers rushed out of the Eccles theater to offer up bids which lobbied back and forth through the night among at least six competing studios — including Paramount, The Weinstein Company, Sony, Netflix, a surprise bidder in Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios and Fox Searchlight, which emerged as the winner at about 4 a.m. Tuesday.

TheWrap interviewed multiple individuals connected to the negotiations and found out who bid what sum, the arguments they made to win the film and the financial logic that drove the numbers to a historic high.

The sum for worldwide rights is believed to be the most paid for a Sundance film, ever.

The WME sales team, led by the agency’s global head Graham Taylor, told buyers he was looking for a deal that fell between $15 million to $20 million. Buyers needed to pony up minimum bids to be in the game, estimated at about $10 million. WME also sought a wide release for the film before the close of 2016.

From the moment credits rolled at the film’s premiere, Fox Searchlight executives let it be known that they were going to be aggressive in trying to win the movie. Having successfully released “12 Years a Slave” and taken the film all the way to Best Picture, the studio led by Nancy Utley and Stephen Gilula believed they knew how to handle Parker’s baby, and help it win critical and awards recognition as well as significant box office.

But so did Paramount, Sony, TWC, Netflix and the new bidder in Allen’s Entertainment Studios.

Allen, whose Entertainment Studios owns seven HD networks, last year purchased Freestyle Releasing with the intention of going into long-form feature distribution. As an African-American media mogul, Allen argued that he would be a passionate advocate to release the film about Nat Turner’s slave revolt in the 1830s. But he would be a dark horse bidder among the indie studio veterans, and the powerhouse streaming giant Netflix which has been on a Sundance buying spree.

When the chips were down in the middle of the night, WME had offers from TWC for $12 million and Paramount and Sony for $15 million.

Fox Searchlight offered $16 million, which TheWrap reported at the time, but Netflix bid $20 million and so, surprisingly, did Entertainment Studios, according to information provided to TheWrap.

Netflix had no comment. An Entertainment Studios spokesperson did not immediately return TheWrap’s request for comment.

The bidding escalated because of several recent examples of African-American themed movies that have seen significant domestic and international box office performance.

The comparisons being used to crunch numbers were: “Django Unchained,” which took in $162 million at the domestic box office and $262 million international; “12 Years a Slave,” which did $56 million at the domestic box office and $131 million; and “The Butler,” which did $117 million domestically and $60 million internationally.

Ultimately Parker and his producers chose to go with the lower bid, as Fox successfully argued they were best placed to bring the movie its full potential success. Bids were bandied back and forth via email, the individual said, and no one shut an eye.