Toronto: 'Birth of a Nation's' International Appeal Dims Without Awards Buzz

Will the media storm surrounding Nate Parker's slave revolt drama sink the movie overseas? Only if it derails its awards prospects.

Friday's premiere at the Toronto Film Festival marks the start of a global rollout by Fox Searchlight of the biopic of Nat Turner, the preacher who led a slave revolt in 1831.

The Birth of a Nation is set to bow in the U.S. on Oct. 7 but won't debut in most foreign territories until January and early February. It's a schedule clearly hoping to take advantage of the run-up to the Feb. 26 Oscars, where Birth of a Nation was considered an especially strong contender until the controversy over Parker's college rape trial erupted this summer.

The international market will be crucial if Fox is to recoup its hefty investment in the dark, violent film, which began with a $17.5 million purchase price at Sundance. The model is the studio's release of Steve McQueen's similarly-themed 12 Years a Slave, which grossed some $130 million internationally, about two-thirds of its overall $188 million take. That feature won three Oscars, including best picture.

It remains to be seen what impact the controversy will have on Birth of a Nation's domestic performance. Globally, however, most industry insiders who spoke to THR believe the effect would be minimal as long as the film remains in the awards conversation.

"I can't think of a single U.S. film where a 'private' scandal hurt its international box office,” said one European distributor, who declined to be named. “These stories don't get much attention outside America, and when they do, they don't seem to influence audiences one way or the other.”

He points to the continued success, particularly in Europe, of films by Woody Allen, who has been accused of child sex abuse, and Roman Polanski, whose decades-old rape conviction and repeated attempts by authorities to extradite him to the U.S. are covered extensively in the European media. The international market also never turned its back on Mel Gibson despite more than a decade of scandals. He remained in demand, globally, both as an actor and now, with his Venice Film entry Hacksaw Ridge, as a director as well.

But if the American scandal derails Nation's Oscar run, all bets are off.

Without the Academy Awards, Fox is left with a film (albeit a powerful one) from a first-time director with no major stars about an event in American history most film fans outside the U.S. have never heard of.

“You definitely need the Oscar hype, the awards, the critical attention, to get a film like this to break out,” said Rudiger Boss, a buyer for German television, who has an output deal with Fox for the territory. “You saw it with 12 Years a Slave: The Oscars were a big part of the marketing campaign for us.”

Added one French buyer: "The European media has barely mentioned the story (of the Parker trial). The film isn't on our radar yet and probably won't be until shortly before its local release, so just before the Oscars."

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