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Fox Searchlight is standing by its plans for a nationwide October release for Nate Parker’s Sundance Film Festival sensation The Birth of a Nation, according to studio insiders — despite the mounting media storm focusing on the trial in which Parker and the movie’s co-writer Jean Celestin were charged with raping a young woman in 1999 when all three were students at Pennsylvania State University.
Although Parker was acquitted (Celestin, who was convicted, saw his case overturned on appeal), Parker’s planned central role in promoting the movie is now in question. As writer, director, producer and star of the film about the slave revolt led by Nat Turner in 1831, Parker was to serve as the pic’s primary promoter. He has been expected to embark on an ambitious roadshow promoting The Birth of a Nation in as many as 40 churches and universities around the country.
But with universities now ground zero for advocacy groups raising the issue of sexual assault on college campuses (and the resurfaced details of Parker’s case particularly upsetting for many), veteran industry marketers expect to see Fox Searchlight scale back Parker’s role in promoting both the film’s theatrical release and its awards-season campaign lest he be exposed to tough questions about the 1999 incident along the way.
On Tuesday, reacting to reports that his college accuser committed suicide in 2012, Parker issued a lengthy statement saying, “I am filled with profound sorrow.” While he continued to maintain his innocence, he added, “I see now that I may not have shown enough empathy even as I fought to clear my name. Empathy for the young woman and empathy for the seriousness of the situation I put myself and others in.”
Although the current controversy threatens to overshadow Parker’s original plan to use Birth of a Nation to raise questions about race in America, Fox Searchlight sources said earlier Tuesday the roadshow is still a go and that Parker still plans to attend next month’s Toronto International Film Festival, where the movie will screen.
In striking a record $17.5 million deal with Searchlight for The Birth of a Nation at Sundance back in January, Parker and his team insisted on a number of conditions, such as a nationwide rollout (often, festival films open in select theaters and then expand). He chose Fox Searchlight over other distributors (Netflix actually bid higher with a $20 million offer) in part because the awards-savvy distributor promised a theatrical release of at least 1,500 screens. He also insisted on the roadshow and an educational component that would allow the film to play in schools despite what is certain to be an R rating for violence.
In recent months, Parker has been on a whirlwind tour promoting the movie, essentially becoming its face. He has accepted honors like the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Award in April and the Sundance Institute’s Vanguard Award just last week. He also has visited schools, speaking at the University of the Pacific’s Black History Month event in February and at Stanford’s African & African American Studies program in April.
Fox Searchlight staff has been busy this summer organizing a tour of colleges and universities to coincide with the film’s release. (Dates and specific schools that Parker plans to visit to talk about the film have not yet been announced.) According to sources, the marketing plan also includes reaching out to church groups (Parker recently did an interview with Christianity Today) and notable celebrity endorsements have come from Oprah Winfrey and Will Packer, who have already hosted screenings of the film.
The Birth of a Nation is set to hit theaters Oct. 7 after making a stop at Toronto, where it will court further press exposure to pave the way for its national opening.
Parker has been telling an inspiring story of how he set aside his career as an actor and spent a decade raising financing for the pic, a wrenching period drama that borrows its title from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, which glorified the Ku Klux Klan. Parker’s movie, by presenting a black hero who fights back, comes at a particularly timely moment — it not only is expected to speak to the Black Lives Matter movement but also, potentially, offers the Film Academy an opportunity to counter the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that has haunted the Oscars for the past two years.
As recently as Aug. 11, the day before his rape trail was thrust back into the news, Parker told The Hollywood Reporter that he and Fox Searchlight had a “very specific plan” to get the film into schools, despite its R rating. “We’ve developed a curriculum and my foundation has developed a staff curriculum so people can teach about Nat Turner,” he said. “We have a couple things that we’re working on so that young people can see it and it can get into schools.”
While Fox Searchlight apparently was not aware of the rape charge in Parker’s past when it originally acquired the film — although the case had received coverage at the time and was detailed on Parker’s Wikipedia page — the distributor must now contend with the new and explosive issues that could derail some of its marketing plans. The Birth of the Nation already posed a tricky challenge as a violent slave uprising film with a mostly unknown cast, but Fox Searchlight had not shied away from the subject matter or other hurdles. As if to court inevitable controversy, it issued striking marketing materials that included a blood-stained American flag and Parker-as-Turner about to be lynched.
Now that the issue of sexual assault has been added to the mix, it’s a potentially combustible combination, possibly more controversy than Fox Searchlight had bargained for. The issue could divide potential moviegoers — just as students on the Penn State campus faced off over the original 2001 trial, with women’s groups supporting the accuser and black organizations rallying around Parker and Celestin.
Currently, box-office and publicity experts are divided as to whether the controversy will derail Birth of a Nation at the box office.
“This definitely hurts the movie,” says one film exec. But an agent thinks this may not hurt the film’s grosses but could affect awards prospects, saying, “I think that ultimately people will embrace the subject matter and look past the creators. But I think in Hollywood, for awards season, this is something we’re going to talk about for the next eight months at least.”
Insiders caution, though, that it might be wise for Parker to step aside and let the movie speak for itself.
That was the approach Fox took in 2014, when, shortly before the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, that movie’s director Bryan Singer was accused in a civil suit of sexually assaulting a minor. While Singer’s attorney called the charge “outrageous, vicious and completely false” and the plaintiff dropped the suit four months later, Singer canceled appearances to promote the movie and his name was removed from some of the marketing materials. The studio then went ahead with the film’s release as planned with successful results.
But the two situations aren’t strictly analogous. As the director, Singer wasn’t the public face of his movie, which had plenty of stars ready to speak on its behalf. By contrast, Parker is very much at the center — behind and in front of the camera — of The Birth of the Nation, and his reception likely will be tied closely to that of the movie.
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