As Fox Searchlight fights to save its prize Oscar contender The Birth Of A Nation from brutal attention to old rape charges—ultimately defeated in court—against its star-director Nate Parker and co-creator Jean McGianni Celestin, Hollywood’s masters of crisis management are full of advice for the beleaguered studio. But their counsel points in almost every direction, except up.
Polled privately this week, four prominent players involved with the tougher part of show business communications agreed on only one thing: Fox Searchlight and Parker are suddenly facing extreme difficulty with a film that only weeks ago was regarded as a shoo-in for major Oscar nominations, and a likely standard-bearer for those who saw the last awards cycle as having shamefully snubbed black talent.
Parker, knowing that sexual assault and rape charges stemming from a 1999 encounter with a woman at Penn State University were sure to re-surface, openly discussed the episode in an interview with Deadline last week. He was found not guilty of those charges at trial; Celestin, who was involved in the same events, was convicted, but eventually prevailed on appeal and was never re-tried. In recent days, the accuser’s family revealed that she had committed suicide several years ago—a development of which Parker, in a long Facebook post, said he had been unaware.
Instead of receding, media attention has continued to build; on Thursday, the New York Times added its voice with a page one article noting the heavy damage to Parker’s film. So what should Parker and Fox Searchlight do, as they prepare for a Toronto Film Festival appearance, and the October 7 release of a movie that was supposed to be about Nat Turner and resistance to racial oppression, but is now tangled in a fierce contemporary debate about sexual violence?
Communications experts who are not involved with the film or Fox offered radically different advice. Here’s some of it:
Screen the movie, not just for the media, but for almost everyone.
This comes from a Hollywood consultant who has worked with dozens of entertainment companies, and has weathered trouble at more than a few of them. His idea is to turn the conversation as quickly as possible from Parker and his behavior, back to the movie, with its powerful, if harsh, message about oppression and liberation.
By this person’s thinking, it is particularly important to show the film widely before the Toronto festival, in hopes that media attention to the sex case will be wrung out before Parker and his fellow cast members face the international press corps.
Fox Searchlight, in fact, appears to be doing something like this. It is so far forging ahead with a grassroots program under which the movie had already been shown in July to a convention of the African Methodist Episcopal church in Philadelphia. That campaign is supposed to expand, with viewings and Parker appearances at places like Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania, then in Washington D.C., at a session for members of the Black Congressional Caucus. Further church screenings are also planned under the supervision of the Marshall Mitchell, who has been associated with the Wit PR and Different Drummer firms, and the Liquid Soul marketing firm.
Queries to Fox Searchlight about its plans drew no response.
This same consultant said it is important to “shut Nate up,” sooner rather than later. He felt Parker’s long disquisition on Facebook opened more doors than it closed, which is bad from a crisis control point of the view.
Finally, the consultant said Fox should not hire any well-known crisis manager. “If you hire a crisis type, you’re advertising that you’re in a crisis,” he said.
Turn the conversation back to race.
This comes from a communications executive at a major studio that has survived past film-related crises, as they all have. It is indelicate, but the advice grows from a pragmatic assessment that, in the current climate, “race trumps gender,” if only by a little, when it comes to demands for social justice.
Right or wrong, this executive’s judgment aligns with the notion that Fox Searchlight should keep screening the movie. As audiences encounter its story, which consciously taps contemporary rage at police shootings of black men and other abuses, they may swing back into sympathy with Parker, viewing him more as victim than oppressor.
A possible downside here, the executive acknowledged, is that strong emphasis on racial oppression will provoke an inevitable critique of the film’s use of fictionalized history to influence current debate. But that critique, the executive reasons, will likely come from the right side of the political spectrum, and may not much influence more left-leaning Oscar voters.
Vet Parker, thoroughly, and immediately.
That’s the upshot from a crisis manager who likes to think around corners. This person believes Parker has done well enough, so far, by speaking openly, and in his own, impassioned voice. He’d like to have seen Parker say less about his accuser’s suicide. “Why repeat that she killed herself, why repeat a negative?” he asked of the Facebook post.
But, overall, he gives Parker points for having used the end of summer, in an Olympics year, to air an issue that was sure to surface before Oscar night.
Still, for Fox Searchlight, the problem with Parker’s having spoken out early, and seemingly fully, lies with anything else it might not know. “If even one issue with any other woman comes up, this is a terrible idea,” the crisis manager said of Parker’s current openness. One more accusation of any kind, and he will be seen as having been false.
So, for now, “he has to just stop talking about it,” this person said. That might run counter to Fox Searchlight’s current course; the studio is almost certainly considering whether to make Parker available for a television interview, addressing for the cameras what he has so far addressed through the filter of reporters.
But this communicator cautioned that mistakes tend to occur when subjects speak under immediate pressure—as Parker is now. Letting things cool a bit would give him time to collect his thoughts, and perhaps get some schooling from people who have been through a storm or two.
Another worry, for this person, is the current presidential campaign. In a year of weird politics, it is not impossible, he suggested, for Parker and his film to surface in the coming presidential debates. “Trump’s going to bring up the issue, about whether you believe the woman, and try to hang it on Bill Clinton,” he suggested.
Wade straight into the sexual assault debate.
This comes from a woman who has kept a close eye on sexual assault issues. “You have to own it,” she said of Parker’s having become a focal point in the much wider debate about sex violence in colleges. “If he’s going on a college tour any way, it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “In a way, it’s an obligation.”
This person said the debate, which was ignited with a Deadline post on Friday, “has already gone on too long” to be put aside by any attempted turn back to the film, or to racial issues.
This adviser said Parker’s best hope is to align with campus advocates for women, and “to show he really cares about the issue,” something he might do by lending support to women’s groups, as he and his personal foundation have done for aspiring black filmmakers at Wiley College, or the future recipients of a Sundance grant backed by the Birth Of A Nation filmmakers and cast.
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