‘Birth of a Nation’ meets box-office expectations

Controversy and mixed reviews could diminish Oscar prospects

BY TRE’VELL ANDERSON
LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS

LOS ANGELES — 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 last weekend, it might not be down for the entire count.

Nat Turner marries Cherry, a slave on a neighboring plantation, in “The Birth of a Nation. Nate Parker and Aja Naomi King star in the film.
Nat Turner marries Cherry, a slave on a neighboring plantation, in “The Birth of a Nation. Nate Parker and Aja Naomi King star in the film.

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.)

Sixth place
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 and Gabrielle Union.

“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 produced, directed and co-wrote.

Shadowed by case
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 film, however, has diminished: Many critics have, in ways subtle and nuanced, retracted the unbridled accolades lodged at the picture out of Sundance, while 79 percent 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. 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.

An A grade
Its Oscar prospects, too, seem to have withered. One Hollywood insider who has worked on past Oscar campaigns predicted the film’s awards chances will be hurt not only by the controversy surrounding Parker, but by mixed reviews and the movie’s lackluster opening.

“It’s not a tour-de-force effort,” said the source, who declined to be identified 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.

Fox Searchlight remained confident in “Birth” in the wake of the controversy, adding about 400 theaters to its opening run during the last month to bring its footprint to over 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 percent) and primarily African-American (50 percent). Forty percent of the audience was White.

‘Encouraging’ outcome
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 controversy 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-viewing options.

Times staff writer Josh Rottenberg contributed to this report.

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