With a record-breaking $17.5 million purchase of Nate Parker’s directorial debut “The Birth of a Nation” at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Fox Searchlight is going full-throttle on the release of the movie, though the controversy surrounding Parker’s involvement in a rape case has taken a bit of the wind from its sails.
The biopic of Nat Turner (played by Parker), who in 1831 led a slave rebellion in Southampton Country, Virginia, will be released in 2,100 theatres beginning Friday, an ambitious move by Searchlight to attract both arthouse and multiplex audiences.
“Birth of a Nation” mirrors in some ways the current social climate in America, with the Black Lives Matter movement still grabbing headlines as African-Americans are shot and killed by police. TV ads for the movie even use current protest footage intercut with Turner’s rebellion in the movie. And with its relevance and early awards attention, Searchlight is staying optimistic that the movie can still generate the box office it hoped for before Parker’s rape case resurfaced in August.
In 1999, a woman accused Parker and another man, Jean McGianni Celestin (who has a story writing credit on “Birth of a Nation”), of raping her while they were students at Penn State University. Parker was acquitted of the rape charge in a 2001 trial. Then in August, it was revealed that the woman killed herself in 2012.
Searchlight and Parker have since been on the defensive. Though Parker has shown remorse that the woman has died, Parker has declined to apologise to the woman’s family, stating on “60 Minutes” that he was “falsely accused.“
Box-office projections have the movie opening this weekend between $7 and $8 million, according to The Hollywood Reporter, though some tracking services have it opening around $10 million.
The film, which won both the grand jury and audience award prizes at this year’s Sundance, would need to have around a $50 million lifetime box-office gross to break even, according to TheWrap.
“Unlike say, Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, Nate Parker is really in his infancy as an auteur, and dealing with the rape controversy while promoting his first film is surely an exhausting and no-win prospect,” Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, told Business Insider, comparing Parker’s situation to Allen and Polanski’s past charges of sexual abuse. “The box office is now in the hands of the people’s court, they will decide the outcome.”
Typically movies released by a independent distributor start with a limited opening (say, New York City and Los Angeles), and then open wide across the country in the weeks that follow.
“12 Years a Slave” in 2013 did that and in its fourth week when it went wide (1,144 screens), it took in $6.6 million. The movie went on to win best picture. “Selma” in 2014 (though released by Paramount, taking a page from the indie playbook) did the same and in its second week went wide (2,179 screens) and had an $11.3 million weekend.
Bock believes Searchlight’s aggressive release will pay off and predicts a $10 million opening weekend for the film.
“Fox Searchlight is going for the box-office gusto,” Bock said. “While the move risks it being forgotten come awards season, its $17.5 million investment should be secure.”
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