The Birth of a Nation Couldn’t Overcome Nate Parker at the Box Office

Nate Parker in Birth of a Nation.

The Main Story
While the Nate Parker controversy is about far more important things than money, the opening-weekend performance of The Birth of a Nation has still been one of the biggest questions of the year for box-office watchers. Could the film — which Parker wrote, produced, directed, and starred in — overcome his cratered reputation to be the hit Fox Searchlight thought it would be when the studio paid a record fee for the movie at Sundance? Or was the association with Parker too much to survive, even for a film based on a real-life subject, with built-in religious and cultural appeal?

Turns out, the answer is firmly in the former camp — at least, for now. The Birth of a Nation opened at an estimated $7.1 million, a disappointing number for a title with this kind of exposure, cost, and expectations. To put that performance in perspective, it's lower than the opening weekend of Free State of Jones, the Matthew McConaughey Civil War epic that opened to general ambivalence in June. While Jones had 700 more theaters than The Birth of a Nation did, that's more than enough saturation in both cases to expect a better result; Birth's per-theater average was $3,373, about on par with The Infiltrator, a release that struggled seriously enough that it raised questions about its distributor's future. (It also might cause flashbacks to last June, when two Sundance breakouts, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Dope, which had a similar opening weekend to Birth, were both finding the rest of the country far less welcoming than Park City.)

The good news for The Birth of a Nation is that it's emerging from the weekend with an A Cinemascore, meaning that those who did go to see it actually liked it, and it does appear to have strong support within the black community: Deadline reports that that it was the top film in "several African American neighborhood theaters" throughout the country, as well as a strong performer in the South. But even if word of mouth gives the film enough of a hold to approach a $30 million run, that's still likely not good enough, considering how much Fox Searchlight invested in the film. And you can't necessarily compare this to your typical word-of-mouth film, since your typical word-of-mouth film doesn't have the specter of its star's rape accusation hanging over it. At the very least, it looks safe to say that The Birth of a Nation won't do anything close to 12 Years a Slave's $187 million worldwide gross, much less its nine Oscar nominations.

What Else Happened?
Not much to crow about. The Girl on the Train won the weekend at $24.7 million, with an audience that was 70 percent female, but it wasn't a spectacular achievement. Everyone loves to put The Girl on the Train up next to Gone Girl, and in that respect, it's no comparison, as Gone Girl opened at $37.5 million. With a B- Cinemascore, don't expect Emily Blunt and Co. to make up the gap in the long haul, either. Trailing The Girl on the Train were a bunch of holdovers: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Deepwater Horizon, The Magnificent Seven, and Storks made up the rest of the top five.

Meanwhile, Finding Dory became the third film of the year to break the $1 billion mark worldwide, along with Captain America: Civil War and Zootopia. Mazel tov to Disney, which released all three and still has Doctor Strange, Moana, and Rogue One coming down the pike.