For months, filmmaker Nate Parker and his historical drama ‘The Birth of a Nation’ have dominated headlines. First came the soaring expectations for his indie film, branded a surefire Oscar favorite at Sundance and snapped up by Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million. Then came the scandal surrounding a 17 year-old rape case involving Parker and his co-writer.
But after the movie’s mediocre debut in theaters this past weekend, it’s safe to say the big buzz around “The Birth of a Nation” is probably over.
The long-awaited film earned a disappointing $7.1 million, despite a notably wide-scale release at more than 2,100 theaters nationwide. After all the hype, cultural commentary and spirited debate, the movie-going masses simply didn’t show up.
Analysts had been scrutinizing the film’s box office outlook for weeks, as Parker embarked on a largely unsuccessful media tour in an attempt to defuse the rape case controversy. As of last week, some industry experts were still optimistic that the movie could be successful: One box office analyst told USA Today that the controversy may well pique curiosity and drive opening-weekend totals to $16 million or even $20 million.
What happened? While some moviegoers may have been put off by the controversy, middling reviews for the movie itself probably didn’t help. Meanwhile, historic dramas can be a hard sell: It’s possible a lot of multiplex visitors just plain weren’t interested.
Searchlight, which released the film into theaters, isn’t giving up hope. The company’s head of distribution, Frank Rodriguez, told The New York Times that the film’s financial outlook could improve over coming weekends as moviegoers keep talking about it. The movie did better with black audiences; 60 percent of ticket-buyers were African-American, and the company remains hopeful for a word-of-mouth surge.
“I’m not going to say we are disappointed,” he said.
Parker’s film, a historical dramatization of the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, had been hailed earlier this year as a hopeful antidote to the lack of diversity among Oscar-nominated films. But over the summer, reporters resurrected the story of a 1999 rape case involving Parker and fellow writer Jean McGianni Celestin, who were charged with sexually assaulting an 18 year-old freshman when they were Penn State wrestlers and roomates. Their accuser claimed the two men had sex with her while she was unconscious after a night of drinking, and incapable of giving consent. Parker was acquitted at trial; Celestin was convicted, but his verdict was later overturned on appeal. The woman successfully sued Penn State for failing to protect her from repeated harassment by Parker and Celestin after she made the allegations.
Parker had addressed the case in previous media interviews years ago. But the story drew more attention in August when Variety revealed that his accuser committed suicide in 2012.
Several prominent feminists decried Parker’s defiant response to the scandal and pledged to boycott the film, which drew a protest vigil at Hollywood’s ArcLight Cinemas last week.
It isn’t clear to what degree the rape case controversy might have impacted ticket sales. For those who did see the movie, the response was positive: The movie received a solid ‘A’ grade in CinemaScore exit polls.
But that probably means nothing in terms of the movie’s once-high Oscar hopes.
If the movie had been a hit, we might have spent the next four months arguing about it: With Hollywood awards season ramping up, showbiz pundits would have been wringing their hands over whether to reward a gifted filmmaker despite his off-screen controversies.
But the Academy Awards are an industry award, after all; and if it’s not a box-office champ or a massive critical success, Oscar voters are unlikely to get invested. It’s fair to say the big debate over “The Birth of a Nation” is over — and the audience, or lack thereof, ended it.