Weekend Box Office: 'Birth of a Nation' Derailed; 'Girl on the Train' Rumbles to $27M

Universal Pictures
'The Girl on the Train'

Filmmaker Nate Parker, who makes his feature directorial debut with 'The Birth of a Nation,' has become embroiled in controversy over his involvement in a 1999 rape trial.

Director Tate Taylor's female-fueled The Girl on the Train rumbled out of the station at the North American box office, where it earned $9.4 million Friday from 3,144 theaters for a projected $26.7 million debut, more than enough to win the weekend ahead of embattled filmmaker Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation, according to early returns.

The overall box office will take a small hit because of Hurricane Matthew in the southeastern U.S., although south Florida, including Miami, was spared the brunt of the storm. Box-office observers estimate revenue could be down 2 percent because of theater closures in Jacksonville, Fla., Georgia and the Carolinas.

Girl on the Train, an adaptation of British author Paula Hawkins' hit novel and starring Emily Blunt, was produced by Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks and distributed by Universal. The story centers on a woman who thinks she witnesses a murder while riding on the train, but because of her troubled past and problems with alcohol, doesn't know if she can trust what she believes she's seen.

Hawkins says she doesn't feel her novel is similar to Gillian Flynn's dark mystery Gone Girl, but plenty of moviegoers are comparing the two films. At this pace, Girl on the Train won't match the debut of 2014's Gone Girl ($37 million), although both received similar CinemaScores. Girl on the Train received a B-, while Gone Girl notched a B.

Girl on the Train also stars Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Allison Janney, Edgar Ramirez and Lisa Kudrow, with Marc Platt and Jared LeBoff producing. The film, which cost under $50 million to make, has drawn somewhat mixed reviews, but the popularity of the book is delivering strong results.

Birth of a Nation, Parker's directorial debut, hoped to cross at least $10 million in its debut after becoming the darling of the Sundance Film Festival in January, where a fierce bidding war resulted in a record $17.5 million sale to Fox Searchlight. Instead, the movie grossed $2.6 million Friday from 2,105 theaters for a sixth-place finish and projected $7.5 million weekend, despite strong reviews and and A CinemaScore.

The period drama, centering on the Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831, seemed the ideal antidote to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and was widely viewed as an obvious contender in the upcoming Oscar race. But over the summer, Parker came under fire over a 1999 trial in which he and Jean Celestin, who later co-wrote Birth of a Nation, were accused of raping a classmate at Penn State University. Parker, who maintained the sex was consensual, was acquitted, while Celestin was convicted. (Celestin's case was overturned on appeal.)

Just days after Parker made new comments about the incident in interviews, it was revealed that the accuser committed suicide in 2012.

Birth of a Nation boasts a large footprint for an indie film and is one of the widest releases ever for Searchlight, and intended play to all audiences. On Friday, the majority of the audience was African-American (60 percent). In addition to directing, Parker stars opposite Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller and Gabrielle Union.

Comps are difficult. The Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, likewise from Searchlight, first opened in select theaters and then expanded as awards buzz built.

This past summer, Free State of Jones, based on the true story of a soldier (played by Matthew McConaughey) who rebelled against the Confederacy and married a former slave, opened to $6.5 million from 2,815 theaters on its way to earning a dismal $20.8 million.

This weekend's third new nationwide offering is YA comedy Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, from CBS Films and Participant Media and distributed by Lionsgate.

Middle School, based on the 2011 novel of the same name by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts, is projected to open to $7 million from 2,822 theaters. The kid-friendly movie, which earned an A- CinemaScore, was directed by Steve Carr and stars Griffin Gluck, Lauren Graham, Rob Riggle, Retta, Thomas Barbusca, Andy Daly and Adam Pally.

Oct. 8, 7:30 a.m. Updated with Friday numbers and revised weekend projections.