It’s often said that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but in regards to The Birth of a Nation’s estimated $7M opening this weekend, many are pegging the Nat Turner biopic’s lackluster performance to the controversies that have besieged the film’s director/producer/star Nate Parker and co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin.
In August, Deadline reported that Parker and Celestin were accused of raping a Pennsylvania State University classmate 17 years ago while she was unconscious. Parker stood trial and was acquitted, maintaining the sex was consensual. Celestin was initially convicted for sexual assault, but later received an appeal. The accuser committed suicide 12 years later.
It’s not often that a filmmaker’s personal affairs impact the box office results for his feature work, however, in the case of Parker, the news of the 17-year old incident have been front and center during most of his press appearances in recent weeks from the Toronto International Film Festival to Good Morning America and 60 Minutes. And many in the distribution and exhibition community believe that bad news is what’s preventing this Fox Searchlight release from crossing over to a broader audience and bigger numbers this weekend. Various exit polls shows that close to 60% of Birth of a Nation‘s ticket buyers are African American.
This despite the fact that Birth of a Nation received a solid overall A CinemaScore last night with A+ grades among those under 18 (9%), under 25 (16%) and 18-24 (7%). Sources tell Deadline that in several African American neighborhood theaters in Baldwin Hills, New York, Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago and Norfolk, Birth of a Nation was the No. 1 title. In addition, Birth of a Nation overperformed in the south. ‘A’ grade movies typically generate a 3.6x multiple, and with an opening this low, Birth of a Nation will likely land a final domestic tally that’s under $30M. That’s not enough for a movie that carries an estimated P&A between $10M-$20M and an acquisition price of $17.5M.
One rival female studio executive told Deadline, “It’s very hard to watch this film as a woman,” and yet Birth of a Nation showed a majority of females attending at 61%, and awarding the title an A. On Thursday night when Birth of a Nation was previewing at the Hollywood Arclight Theatre, female activist group Fvck Rape Culture held a silent candlelight vigil honoring victims of rape and sexual assault.
It’s no surprise to see such glowing exits polls for Birth of a Nation. Ever since its Sundance Film Festival premiere, this movie loosely based on Turner’s 1831 slave revolt in Southampton Country, Virginia has left many audiences in tears. But ticket sales-wise, it’s an unfortunate fate for a movie with the greatest of intentions.
Speaking about the movie at a Deadline Samsung Studio panel at Sundance, Parker said, “I want everyone to be challenged — it’s kind of like a battle cry from a filmmaking standpoint. Because yes, we need to deal with pervasive racism in Hollywood, but also in society, so I wanted a film that people could watch and be affected — almost hold them hostage in the theater, where they have to see this images, and they have to see the parallels and the themes that are echoing right now in 2016.”
When Fox Searchlight won a fierce bidding war for Birth of a Nation, shelling out a record $17.5M for the title 10 months ago at Sundance, it was at a time when #OscarsSoWhite was seizing the town. Searchlight believed that with Birth it had another Oscar best picture winner like its 2013’s 12 Years a Slave on its hands with the potential to do a similar amount of cash stateside, close to $60M. 12 Years a Slave received a platform release, was propelled by critics, and capitalized on key award ceremonies during its theatrical run. But Searchlight’s plan for Birth of a Nation from the onset was to always go wide in 1,500-plus venues. Typically, a critically acclaimed film during awards season with a largely fresh face cast is platformed, but Searchlight believed there was enough momentum for a wide release given Birth‘s hot word of mouth out of Sundance. Furthermore, given how much Searchlight paid for the film, they had to go wide with Birth of a Nation so they could make their money back fast. Deadline learned this week that exhibitors were deaf to the Parker/Celestin controversy, and even phoned up Searchlight at the last minute to request more prints, upping Birth of a Nation’s theater count to 2,105. Critics too kept the artist separate from the art, and rallied behind Birth of a Nation with a 79% certified fresh Rotten Tomatoes score.
However, all of Searchlight’s efforts in hiring crisis PR consultants to work with Parker during his TV and public appearances didn’t go for as the filmmaker either dodged questions or remained unapologetic about his past. In a Tweet on Oct. 5, director Judd Apatow exclaimed, “He has an opportunity to teach young men about the meaning of consent…He could do something that would help so many people.”
“There should have been radio silence on the topic after the news broke over the summer, but it just kept rearing its head,” a studio marketing suit asserted to Deadline, while another studio executive remarked about Parker’s press tour, “It’s gotta be about (correcting) him before tubthumping the movie, and that’s where the PR failed.”
Searchlight focused on the movie’s call to action themes in its marketing with provocative posters and a trailer that featured Andra Day’s “Rise Up” R&B anthem. There was also a grass-roots campaign executed by the distributor with sermon pamphlets sent out to 80K churches and study guides to 30K schools. Private screenings were held for groups such as the Congressional Black Caucus and the Conference of National Black Churches. The Mayor of Compton, CA, Aja Brown, also held an advance screening earlier this week.
Some rival distribution executives thought that the poster of Parker being hung by the American flag was too fierce in the wake of the director/star/producer’s media maelstrom. However, the consensus is that any attempt by Searchlight to harness marketing opportunities or correct a publicity backlash were futile. For weeks, tracking showed a single digit projected opening for Birth of a Nation.
Adds one box office tracker, “The problem is that the film’s true message isn’t of mind with media, rather it’s Parker’s scandal. Birth of a Nation needs that zeitgeist moment in the press, where it hits a crescendo and the media exclaims, ‘Wow, we’ve never seen history told from this standpoint.’ It’s missing that must-see factor in the press.” To make matters worse, the press also pointed to the historical holes in Parker’s telling of Nat Turner’s story; as well as the filmmaker’s contradictory views on what details were accurate.
As the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and the industry at large seeks to laud a more diverse lineup of films in the wake of last year, Birth of a Nation is probably not that contender. But if there’s any positive takeaway from Birth of a Nation‘s release, it’s the fact that it’s the first in a wave of several hotly buzzed African American titles this season including Focus Features’ Loving, A24’s Moonlight and Paramount’s Fences.
Said one rival studio executive about Birth of a Nation on Sunday morning, “This movie with its strong themes of uprising arrives at a very interesting time in our country. Without the filmmakers’ controversies, it’s a story many would feel compelled to see. And it’s a shame that’s not happening.”