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Fate, and Two Film Festivals
This is one of Hollywood’s most exciting times of year, when the Sundance festival ends and the Oscar nominations for the previous year are announced. Sundance films have come to dominate other prestige awards, none bigger than the Oscars. Once upon a time, this Park City, Utah festival of independent films was the granola-crunching, Earth-loving alternative to conventional Hollywood thinking. By the early Nineties, it was anointed as Hollywood’s incubator of new ideas and new talent. It’s no exaggeration to say that for a third of a century, Sundance has played a major role in changing our culture in a more progressive direction.
It’s also an annual film industry center of competitive buying frenzy, as fierce, all-night bidding wars take place in $40,000-a-week rental chalets. Fox Searchlight was one of the more experienced, successful predators in those bidding wars. It pushed 12 Years a Slave all the way to the Oscar for Best Picture. Now, convinced it could do it again, it bid a breathtaking $17,500,000 for the rights to new phenomenon The Birth of a Nation, a low-budget independent film that boldly took—some would say, appropriated–the title of the pioneering D.W. Griffith film on its centenary, for a black man’s vision of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in 1831. The filmmaker, an experienced actor, and first-time director named Nate Parker, was ready for his “rocket push”—a term for the most that Hollywood and modern public relations can do. But there was a flaw, a hidden problem here, and it would turn this into a cultural and financial disaster story. Do you know this story? I didn’t.