Emancipation: Apple Acquires World Rights For Action Thriller Package With Antoine Fuqua And Will Smith

Deadline is exclusively reporting that Apple Studios have secured the largest film festival acquisition deal in film history by acquiring the world rights to Emancipation, the action thriller with Antoine Fuqua directing and Will Smith starring.


Emancipation will use all that as historical background behind Peter, a runaway slave that became commonly known for being the man of ‘The scourged back’ photograph’, but at heart it is an action thriller with a powerful emotional core that involves Peter’s death-defying journey to escape his captors. Using onions to mask his scent from pursuing bloodhounds, and his strength and smarts to survive running barefoot through the swamps for ten days.


The thriller is fuelled by the indelible image and true story of Peter showing his bare back during an Army medical examination, with photos taken of the scars from a whipping delivered by an overseer on the plantation owned by John and Bridget Lyons that nearly killed him. The photo would be known as ‘The scourged back’ and be published by the Independent in May, 1863 and then in Harper’s Weekly’s 4th July issue, that became indisputable proof of the cruelty and barbarity of slavery in America. The photo reached around the world and legend has it that it made countries like France refuse to but cotton from the South. It solidified the cause of abolitionists and prompted many free blacks to join the Union Army.


The film was one of the hottest packages going into the Cannes virtual market last week and the last few days it came down to a bidding war between two studios, Warner Bros. and Apple, though last night Apple finally pipped Warner Bros. for the project. Deadline’s source tell them that the commitment comes in at $015m net, but when backend gross buyouts are factored in, the deal will in the end exceed £120m. Willam N. Collage, who wrote the script, is said to be getting paid mid-seven figures for the screenplay. It’s also believed that the deal to Apple securing the deal was the relationship that Apple Worldwide Video heads Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht have with Will Smith, working on a few Jada Pinkett Smith series projects (Hawthorne and Hala as examples) whilst they were Sony Pictures Television presidents and it’s believed that their relationship played a factor in the deal.


Antoine Fuqua talked to Deadline about the project, saying:

It hit my heart and my soul in so many ways that are impossible to convey but I think you understand. We’re watching some of the feeling that I had, in the streets right now. There’s sadness, there’s anger, there’s love, faith and hope as well because of what I see young people doing today. They’re doing all the heavy lifting now. Black, white, brown, yellow, you name it. They’re out in the street, they’re young, and they’re standing up for their future. That’s important to see, and the most hopeful thing that I’m seeing, that they’re not going to stand for it anymore. I had all those feelings with I read the script. As a filmmaker, everything I’ve done up to this point in my life, and not just filmmaking but living as a black man in this country, having my own issues, and then having children and a family and being married. It hit home, because this is at heart a film about family, about love. Faith, the idea that Peter never gave up and he fought tooth and nail to get back to his family. That is an important story to tell. The slavery and the brutality, most people are familiar with it. People who care to know about it are familiar with it. I found it brutal and I found it entertaining in a way because of the journey it took me on, Peter’s journey. What’s amazing about it is, this is based on fact and deep research.


Will Smith, James Lassiter and Jon Mone will serve as producers on the project under Westbrook Studios banner, alongside McFarland Entertainment’s Joey McFarland and Escape Artists’ Todd Black. Antoine Fuqua will executive produce under Fuqua Films alongside Cliff Roberts.


Emancipation is scheduled to commence production early 2021, with Apple aiming to have the film in cinemas as well as Apple TV+.

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