- Associated Press - Friday, January 29, 2016

LOS ANGELES (AP) - A year ago, first-time director Nate Parker was still struggling get together the $10 million he needed to make his passion project, a film that tells the story of slave rebellion leader Nat Turner.

On Tuesday, a day after the film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, Parker sold “The Birth of a Nation” to Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million. The buzz caused such frenzy that encore screenings reportedly commanded $100 offers for tickets.

“The Birth of a Nation” is a bit of a Cinderella story of how independent films can become part of the mainstream. But Parker’s success - and previous Sundance breakouts like “Dope” and “Fruitvale Station”- illustrate that there’s a hunger out there for diverse stories, and that studios are willing to pay premiums for them, but not necessarily make them. As things stand, the fastest route to getting an audience and a distributor is by going independent.

While the big studios cower to widespread outrage over the lack of meaningful diversity in film, the Sundance Film Festival is the promising antidote for one reason: In Hollywood, the dollar is the bottom line. At Sundance, the story is.

That philosophy tears down the hurdles that so many minority filmmakers have to face in the entertainment industry, where the big studios sometimes operate by antiquated standards (such as having slots for one or two “urban movies” on their slate) even though monster hits like “Creed” and “Straight Outta Compton” would seem to suggest that making more could be good for the bottom line.

The films that make it to Sundance aren’t filling pre-determined slots. They are borne out of the passion of the filmmakers and financiers who believe in them. They don’t have think about box office, foreign sales or shareholders. They don’t have to abide by conventional storytelling techniques. And they don’t have to worry about whether the stars or directors are names.

Tika Sumpter, whose fictionalized tale of the Obamas first date, “Southside With You,” also premiered at Sundance, said she just “wanted to see someone who looked like me falling in love up there.” It’s a sentiment that many of the filmmakers at the Park City, Utah festival share, and their only opportunity to get their projects made and seen are to do it themselves.

When Parker and his team were trying to pitch “The Birth of a Nation,” they ran up against a number of deeply ingrained biases that financiers needed to get past - first-time director, ambitious period piece about a difficult subject, no inherent appeal for foreign audiences.

But once Parker got in the room, it was, as Mandalay Pictures Vice President Jason Michael Berman put it, “game over.”

“Nate was able to convey his passion and his intelligence and his understanding of this character and of this story in an incredibly eloquent way,” said Berman, who also produced the film.

They knew Sundance was the best place to launch it. That proved true, and then some.

By putting the storytelling first, Sundance incorporates diversity in an organic way. And the festival has the attention of studios, agents, managers, distributors, press, and now, streaming services like Amazon and Netflix who are upping the prices for their discoveries.

“Just in the 16 films I’m seeing in narrative competition, there’s a diversity of thought but there’s also just a diversity of representation, when it comes to race, when it comes to gender, when it comes to sexuality - and none of those movies are being tokenized or marginalized,” said Lena Dunham, who served on the U.S. narrative competition jury.

In the festival’s marquee section alone, 12 of the 16 films feature significant diversity elements: four from Asian-American directors (So Yong Kim’s “Lovesong,” Andrew Ahn’s “Spa Night,” co-director Daniel Kwan’s “Swiss Army Man,” and Jason Lew’s “The Free World”), one from an Indian American (Meera Menon’s “Equity”) and three with black leads (Chad Hartigan’s “Morris From America,” Richard Tanne’s “Southside With You” and “The Birth of a Nation”). And five are directed by women, including Sian Heder’s “Tallulah,” Clea DuVall’s “Intervention” and Elizabeth Wood’s “White Girl.”

The remaining four weren’t exactly whitewashed, either.

“In our film, out of our five leads, they are all women and people of color, and our one white guy is Muslim,” said “The Free World” director Jason Lew. “That is a direct result of me being a person of color and most of our department heads were women or people of color.”

It wasn’t easy, but Lew was able to find financiers who supported his vision, as did first-time director Steven Caple Jr., an African-American who understood that “The Land,” his gritty drama about teenage skateboarders in Cleveland, had the best shot of launching at Sundance.

As of Friday, “The Birth of a Nation,” ”Tallulah,” ”Equity,” ”Intervention,” and “Morris From America” had been acquired, but the Festival runs through Sunday and it’s not unconventional for films to announce deals after the it concludes. Films from other sections featuring diverse faces also sold, like “The Fits,” ”Sleight,” and “Brahman Naman.”

That may be a lot of steps, but it’s still faster than waiting for the studios to catch up to the times.

Even Matt Damon, who caught flak for his comments on race in last year’s “Project Greenlight,” said the movie business has “a long, long, long way to go.”

The fact that “The Birth of a Nation” wasn’t made by one of the big six might even be a good thing in the end - Parker was able to preserve his vision. So was Caple. So was Lew.

“When there’s less money, there’s more freedom of expression,” said Maya Rudolph, the “Saturday Night Live” alum who brought the Diego Luna-directed “Mr. Pig” to Park City.

Berman said he hopes that the groundbreaking success of “The Birth of a Nation” is an inspiration to those trying to get their passion projects made.

“The one thing I think that our movie shows is that with enough pride and determination and passion and good energy, which Nate had, and if you are relentless and you can just work and work and work and put all of your focus on something and you surround yourself by the best team possible, you can make anything happen.”


AP Entertainment Writers Shelley Acoca, Sandy Cohen and Ryan Pearson contributed to this report from Park City, Utah.

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