Diversity thrives in independent movies, while mainstream studios lag behind

By Lindsey Bahr, AP

LOS ANGELES–A year ago, first-time director Nate Parker was still struggling get together the US$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 US$17.5 million. “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 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 to 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.

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.