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Director and actor Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation will open in roughly 2,100 theaters this weekend at the North American box office in an ambitious bid to win over art house audiences and mainstream moviegoers alike.
Conservative estimates show the slave-rebellion drama opening in the $7 million-$8 million range, although some tracking services have it approaching $10 million. Comparisons are difficult since films such as 12 Years a Slave didn’t open nationwide at first; Birth of a Nation’s per-screen average will be one metric.
Initially, Fox Searchlight intended to open the pic in 1,500 to 1,800 locations, but it has expanded those plans, thanks to theater owners who haven’t been scared off by the controversy surrounding Parker over his involvement in a 1999 rape case. But it remains to be seen whether audiences will follow suit.
Birth of a Nation — one of the widest releases ever from Fox Searchlight — was the darling of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, where the distributor plunked down a sizeable $17.5 million for world rights to Parker’s directorial debut, the biggest deal in the fest’s history.
As part of the pact, Parker was insistent that Birth of a Nation be given a wide release, meaning 1,500 theaters or more. Generally speaking, Fox Searchlight, like other specialty distributors, opens the majority of its titles in select theaters in order to build word of mouth. The danger of opening Birth nationwide is that it could disappear quickly.
Over the summer, Fox Searchlight had to grapple with an unexpected hurdle when the rape case resurfaced after Parker spoke in several interviews about the 1999 trial in which he and Jean Celestin (who later co-wrote Birth of a Nation) were accused of raping a classmate at Pennsylvania State University. Parker, who maintained the sex was consensual, was acquitted, while Celestin was convicted. (Celestin’s case was later overturned on appeal.)
Parker became further embattled when it was discovered that the accuser committed suicide in 2012. The filmmaker issued a lengthy statement saying, “I am filled with profound sorrow.”
On Sunday night’s edition of CBS’ 60 Minutes, Parker was asked by correspondent Anderson Cooper whether he wanted to apologize.
He replied: “I’ll say this. I do think it’s tragic, so much of what happened and [what] the family had to endure with respect to this woman not being here. I don’t want to harp on this and be disrespectful of them, but at some point I have to say it: I was falsely accused. I went to court, and I sat in trial. I was vind— (choking up). I was vindicated. I was proven innocent, and I feel terrible that this woman isn’t here. Her family had to deal with that, but as I sit here, an apology is — no.”
Controversy or not, Birth of a Nation isn’t an easy sell. Fox Searchlight will play the film in mainstream multiplexes, African-American theaters and upscale suburban houses as well as traditional art house cinemas.
At Sundance, Birth of a Nation was hailed as an antidote to the then-raging #OscarsSoWhite backlash. Its award chances aren’t so clear now, however.
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