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Academy turnout for 'Birth of a Nation' mirrors box office — disappointing

Watch the trailer for"The Birth of a Nation."

Moviegoers weren't the only ones ignoring "The Birth of a Nation" this weekend.

The motion picture academy screening of Nate Parker's slave revolt historical drama, which opened to a flat $7.1 million at the box office, was about at one-quarter capacity Sunday, with Oscar voters and their guests filling about 250 of the academy's Samuel L. Goldwyn Theater's 1,000 seats.

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The low turnout wasn't particularly surprising. Throughout the week, many academy members told The Times they had no plans on seeing "Birth" on Sunday — or any time in the future. The reasons offered ranged from distaste over the details of Parker's 1999 rape case, disdain for how Parker answered questions about his past while promoting the movie, and a general fatigue with movies about slavery. (Remember: Many academy members never bothered to see 2014 best picture winner "12 Years a Slave," though some still voted for it anyway.)

Sunday's shunning of "Birth" also signals the lingering resentment many academy members feel over January's #OscarSoWhite controversy, when voters were criticized for nominating an all-white slate of acting nominees for a second consecutive year. The academy's immediate pledge to diversify and broaden its membership angered many voters who believed the timing of the response implied that their balloting had racist undertones.

While all this was happening, “Birth,” a historical drama about Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The passion project — for which Parker served as star, director and co-writer — was hailed as an immediate Oscar front-runner and a near-lock guarantee that the 2017 Oscars wouldn’t be so white.

"Basically, the movie was anointed out of Sundance with the media telling us that if we didn't vote for it, we would be again be considered racist," one academy member, a producer, says. "And all the hype seemed less about the quality of the movie itself, but the story behind it and the subject matter. I'm not buying it. And I'm not seeing it, either."

Adds another Oscar voter, a member of the writers branch: "This guy ruined a woman's life and then complains how hard it's been for him. [Forget] him. There's no way I'm going to support that."

A "Birth" screening for New York-based academy members earlier last week at the Museum of Modern Art produced an "OK" response, according to sources close to the film. Those attending Sunday's screening in Beverly Hills gave the movie tepid applause after it ended. Most left before a Q&A with Parker, the cast and crew.

Amid the underwhelming box office and (initially) indifferent academy response, you could still find optimism — provided you're a positive thinker. "12 Years a Slave," also released by Fox Searchlight, drew only 600 or so people for its academy screening — and it was coming off stellar reviews from the Telluride and Toronto film festivals and wasn't hampered by controversy.

And like "12 Years," "Birth" has its share of fans. The movie did earn an A score from opening weekend audiences, per marketing research firm CinemaScore.

"I liked it very much," says Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, who saw the movie at Sundance. "I'm going to see it again. That's what this academy says, OK?"

And at this point, Parker and Fox Searchlight will take good news wherever they can find it.

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