Fox Searchlight Gets 'Jackie' As Natalie Portman Enters The Best Actress Race

TORONTO – It’s been an up and down few days for Fox Searchlight. “The Birth of a Nation,” the mini-major’s expected Oscar powerhouse has been the center of controversy ever since rape allegations against director and star Nate Parker from his college years came under closer scrutiny last month. Needless to say, no one was sure how the film would be received at the Toronto International Film Festival, it’s first public screenings since its euphoric Sundance debut.  The back-to-back screenings actually went off swimmingly on Saturday night, but Sunday morning’s press conference put Parker’s past back into the spotlight.

Because Searchlight acquired “Birth” for over $17 million at Sundance, the company had decided to push all its resources toward the domestic release and awards season campaigns of Parker’s historical drama. Therefore, they cleared the deck of any other releases in 2016. A new contender has changed all of that.

Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie” finds Natalie Portman playing Jackie Kennedy before and after her husband’s assassination. The drama debuted to strong reviews at the Venice Film Festival last week (read Jessica Kiang’s review) and writer Noah Oppenheim was a surprise winner of the Best Screenplay award. The positive response continued in Toronto where serious acquisition talks began to percolate. The twist is that due to a prior arrangement Fox Searchlight had the right of first and last refusal on U.S. rights to the picture. The mini-major originally offered a price producers Juan De Dios Larraín, Darren Aronofsky, Mickey Liddell, Scott Franklin, and Ari Handel decided to pass on initially. After finding other offers, the “last” part of the deal came to pass and Searchlight matched late Monday night. For anyone who follows the NBA closely, the whole scenario played out as though “Jackie” were a restricted free agent waiting for his original team to match or not.

In a release from Searchlight late Monday night, Searchlight co-presidents Steve Gilula and Nancy Utley remarked, “Pablo Larraín’s ‘Jackie’ is a daring, one-of-a-kind cinematic portrayal of a beloved icon. Led by an indelible performance from Natalie Portman and supported by a richly talented ensemble of actors and artists, the film is one we are thrilled to bring to audiences later this year.”

Larraín added, “I am delighted that Fox Searchlight will be releasing ‘Jackie’ Their movies have been an important influence on me as a filmmaker, and it is a personal achievement for me to have them bring this very special story of a beautiful, sophisticated and mysterious woman to the world. Jackie was the most unknown of the known women of the 20th century.”

The Orchard will release Larraín’s Foreign Language Oscar contender “Neruda” on Dec. 16. “Jackie” will hit theaters a week earlier on Dec. 9. A rumor was circulating across TIFF over the weekend that Larraín didn’t want “Jackie” released this season with “Neruda” also on deck, but that was clearly misinformation.

While “Jackie” clearly has a shot at an Original Screenplay nod the main play here is for Portman. The studio helped her earn her first Academy Award for “Black Swan” and now will attempt to guide her to another nomination in what looks like one of the most competitive Best Actress fields in recent memory. Remember the Best Actor race two years ago? That’s how tough it’s going to be to crack the Best Actress field in 2017.

Portman will have competition from Venice Best Actress winner Emma Stone (“La La Land”), Viola Davis (“Fences,” assuming she doesn’t move to supporting), Meryl Streep (“Florence Foster Jenkins”), Ruth Negga (“Loving”), Amy Adams (“Arrival” or “Nocturnal Animals”), Taraji P. Henson (“Hidden Figures”), Annette Bening (“20the Century Women,” Isabelle Huppert (“Elle”) and potentially Marion Cotillard (“Allied”). Sort of incredible to realize four of those names won’t earn a nod this January and we haven’t even considered fringe contenders Jennifer Lawrence (“Passengers”) or Rebecca Hall (“Christine”).

For Searchlight, however, it’s an opportunity spread the studio’s wings while still attempting to push “Birth” to key nominations including Best Picture. Don’t be surprised if the “Jackie” campaign starts fast and they somehow figure out a way for a screening at NYFF before bringing it to AFI Fest in November.

In case you’re curious what all the hype is about, check out this clip from “Jackie” embedded below.