Following the recent controversy around Fox Searchlight's "The Birth of a Nation," fervor for the film about Nat Turner's 1831 slave rebellion is down — including its Academy Award prospects. But with the film's release in theaters nationwide this weekend, it might not be down for the entire count.
The picture pulled in an estimated $7.1 million in the U.S. and Canada, barely meeting analyst projections of $7 million to $9 million. The studio, which expected $7 million to $8 million going into the weekend, is happy with the debut, said Frank Rodriguez, Fox Searchlight's senior vice president of domestic distribution.
"A 'disappointment' would've been if we came in with $5.8 million or $6.1 million," he said, also noting that Hurricane Matthew in the Southeast closed a significant number of theaters where the film was expected to soar. (Rodriguez admits the difference might have been only a few hundred thousand dollars.)
As for the rest of the box office, fellow new release "The Girl on the Train" from Universal took the top spot with $24.7 million. It was followed by Fox's "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" ($15 million), Lionsgate's "Deepwater Horizon" ($11.8 million), Sony's "The Magnificent Seven" ($9.2 million) and Warner Bros.' "Storks" ($8.5 million). "Birth of a Nation" landed in sixth place, with Lionsgate and CBS Films' new release "Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life" in seventh with $6.9 million.
In "Birth," Nate Parker stars as Turner, the real-life slave minister who, inspired by the gospel he taught, led a violent and historic rebellion in Southampton County, Va. The film also stars Aja Naomi King, Armie Hammer, Gabrielle Union and Aunjanue Ellis.
"Birth" made its name earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, where it received standing ovations and rapturous praise for the multi-hyphenate Parker, who also wore the hats of producer, director and co-writer.
After a bidding war, 20th Century Fox's specialty division, Fox Searchlight, bought the rights to the movie for a staggering $17.5 million, a festival record. Its price tag flagged the industry that the studio felt strongly it had an awards-season contender on its hands, and perhaps a necessary remedy for the #OscarsSoWhite hubbub.
Praise for the picture, however, has diminished: Many film critics have, in ways subtle and nuanced, retracted the unbridled accolades lodged at the picture out of Sundance, while 79% of reviews on Rotten Tomatoes rated the picture positively.
And all of this comes in the shadow of renewed attention to a 1999 case in which Parker was accused of sexually assaulting a female student while at Penn State University. Parker was acquitted in 2001 and has maintained that the sex was consensual, recently telling Anderson Cooper in a "60 Minutes" interview, "I don't feel guilty." Parker's college roommate, Jean McGianni Celestin, who co-wrote "Birth," also was accused in the assault. He successfully appealed his conviction. The men's accuser committed suicide in 2012.
The film's Oscar prospects, too, seem to have withered. One Hollywood insider who has worked on past Oscar campaigns predicted the film's awards prospects will be hampered not only by the controversy surrounding Parker but also by mixed reviews and the movie's lackluster opening.
"It's not a tour-de-force effort," said the source, who declined to be quoted by name so as not to be seen criticizing those who've worked on the film. "I think it's going to fall off a cliff [in the Oscar race], especially as it looks like it's going to lose money for the company that overspent on it to begin with."
Rodriguez said they have been "toning down" some of the studio's hopes, presumably regarding Oscar glory.
While all press is usually good press when controversy strikes in Hollywood, such has not been the case for "The Birth of a Nation." In an age of rampant sexual assault on college campuses and countless harassment and assault accusations toward industry heavyweights like Bill Cosby and former Fox News honcho Roger Ailes, activists are making attempts to hold Parker accountable by not purchasing tickets to his film. Some staged demonstrations outside theaters where the film was showing this weekend.
Fox Searchlight remained confident in the picture, though, adding about 400 theaters to its opening run during the last month to bring its footprint to more than 2,100 locations. Despite what some already have termed a box-office failure, the picture seems to be performing well with those who see it. The film received an A CinemaScore from audiences, which were overwhelmingly older than 25 (60%) and primarily African American (50%). Forty percent of the audience was white.
Rodriguez said the A CinemaScore is promising and "encouraging" regarding the picture's future play. "What we can hope for and what we expect is there to be some good word-of-mouth on the film," he said.
The film performed best in theaters in New York City, Atlanta, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. With the inclement weather along the Southern coast, cities the studio thought would bring in large business, such as in Wilmington, N.C., and Charleston, S.C., faltered.
The controversy surrounding Parker may or may not have contributed to the film's performance, Rodriguez added.
"I cannot say that it didn't affect it at all, but I don't have a metric," he said. "I don't know how to measure that. It's hard to say. Do we wish the discussion was not always involving the controversy? Sure. But it's there."
Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst at ComScore, agreed, saying, "It's almost impossible to know" whether the controversy had an impact.
"I don't know what this movie would have done if the controversy never came up," he said.
While no break-even point makes a film "a success," Rodriguez said, a total of $25 million to $30 million would "ensure" a solid performance of "Birth." Rodriguez thinks the studio is "within reach" of that, taking into account the film's international rollout potential and home-entertainment options.
On the ground, some moviegoers in New York, with countless others otherwise occupied by New York Comic-Con and the New York Film Festival, did show up either to embrace Parker's picture or make a definitive choice in another direction.
Martel Berry, 33, had turned out Sunday to the Regal Union Square to buy a ticket for "Birth," a decision not made lightly.
"I spent a lot of time thinking about and researching what Nate Parker supposedly did," said Berry, who works in film and TV production. "And once I realized it was gray — he wasn't definitely innocent but he wasn't definitely guilty — then I knew what I had to do. I had to see a film about the Nat Turner story."
He added, "But it wasn't an easy decision, that's for sure. Rape culture, the plight of black men — this is the collision of so many things."
Meanwhile, Alizah Kramer, a schoolteacher, had come out with a friend to see "The Girl on the Train." She said she had been following the Parker controversy and had reached a kind of compromise with herself.
"There have been cases in the past where I have judged the art by the artist," said Kramer, who gave her age as in her 30s. "I don't think I'd do that here — I would see the film — but I probably also wouldn't pay to see it in a theater. I wouldn't support it by buying a ticket."
Not everyone was as willing to engage on the scandal. Further uptown at the AMC Loews 34th Street, a woman who gave her name only as Michelle seemed distressed by the very topic of Parker and his film.
"I do know about it, but I don't want to think about it," she said, as she stood next to her boyfriend. "We bought tickets to another movie."
Controversy aside, Dergarabedian said, "What the studio has to hope is that the conversation moves to the movie itself," he said.
"Irrespective of what that conversation is — about whether the movie is good or not — that could be good for the movie. They've launched it, and now it has to stand on its own."
Times staff writers Josh Rottenberg and Steve Zeitchik contributed to this report.
4:42 p.m.: This article was updated with audience comments.
1:40 p.m.: This article was updated throughout.
10:45 a.m.: This article was updated with quotes from an industry analyst.