After dropping roughly $200 million to acquire the Leonardo DiCaprio movie Killers of the Flowers Moon, and a cool $70 million to take Tom Hanks‘ WWII movie Greyhound off of Sony’s hands, Apple has shelled out approximately $120 million for Will Smith‘s emotional action thriller Emancipation, in which he’ll play a runaway slave.
Antoine Fuqua will direct from a script by William N. Collage (Exodus: Gods and Kings), who drew from historical documents in telling the harrowing true story of Peter, a slave on a Louisiana plantation. After receiving a brutal whipping by one of the plantation’s overseers, Peter fled to the North, where he joined the Union Army. When Peter showed Army doctors his back during a medical examination, they took photos of his scars, and one photo known as “the scourged back” was published around the world, effectively going “viral” all the way back in 1863. The photo made its way around the world and was held up as proof of the cruelty of slavery in America. It solidified the abolitionist cause, and prompted many free Blacks to join the Union Army in order to fight racists in the South.
Emancipation is described as being closer in tone to Apocalypto and The Revenant than 12 Years a Slave, as it’s less a traditional slavery drama than an action-packed chase movie. Smith will produce with his Westbrook Studios partners James Lassiter and Jon Mone, as well as Joey McFarland of McFarland Entertainment, Todd Black of Escape Artists, and Apple Studios. Fuqua will executive produce under his Fuqua Films banner along with Cliff Roberts.
Fuqua first read the script nearly two years ago, and he and Smith have been working on the survival tale in secret for some time now. Collage even accessed Peter’s own diaries, which describe how he used onions to mask his scent from hunters and their vicious bloodhounds while making his way through the treacherous swamps of Louisiana en route to freedom.
Apple beat out Warner Bros. for the hot project and plans to release Emancipation in theaters, as well as on Apple TV+. According to Deadline, which broke the news, the $120 million figure reportedly covers the film’s budget, as well as backend payouts to Smith and Fuqua. The streamer doesn’t have a film library to fall back on, so it’s in the position of having to overpay for A-list packages in order to build its subscriber base and draw eyeballs to the service.
Apple Studios bosses Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht have a long-standing relationship with Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, which may have given them the edge over Warners. As former presidents of Sony Pictures Television, they produced Jada’s series Hawthorne, and she also served as an executive producer on Apple’s original movie Hala.
Fuqua said he plans to shoot Emancipation “as soon as possible,” adding that it all “depends on Will’s schedule.” The director is currently in post-production on his Mark Wahlberg movie Infinite, while Smith is expected to finish shooting WB’s sports drama King Richard as soon as production is allowed to resume. He’ll then shoot Emancipation, followed by Bright 2.