Can Nate Parker’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Still Deliver at Box Office Despite Rape Controversy?

The rollout of slave drama hasn’t gone as planned, but Parker could still make the numbers work

Nate Parker has had pretty much the exact opposite of the ideal rollout for a first-time director, especially for a film as controversial as his “The Birth of a Nation,” which tells the story of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave revolt.

Instead of a planned barnstorming tour across the country with talks in front of church groups and college students, Parker has been playing defense as a 17-year-old sexual assault charge from his student days at Penn State University reemerged, and plenty of the film’s would-be champions have come out saying they don’t plan on buying tickets.

Last week, the American Film Institute (AFI) canceled a planned screening and Q&A while Toronto International Film Festival indicated it won’t devote one of its rare press conferences to the high-profile film — although he’ll still be there promoting the film.

Fox Searchlight won a bidding war for the Sundance Jury Prize winner, shelling out a record $17.5 million for distribution rights. And it’s getting a wide release on October 7. That leads to the one big question even Parker can’t answer: Will “Birth” justify its price tag when it finally hits theaters?

It’s easy to bet against the film now, but hype and boffo reviews — which “Birth” is likely to rack up — have a way of making firm stances a little more malleable. Unlike his character, the quality of Parker’s film has never been questioned. It generated tons of Oscar hype before the charges, and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs said Thursday that “people need to see this movie.”

Given its planned wide release in 1,500 theaters — which was an important factor for Parker when picking a distributor and which could cost upwards of $15 million in promotion and advertising — basic movie math indicates that the film could need upwards of $50 million to break even. That seems especially daunting at a time when each day seems to mean another negative Parker headline at a time when society is hyper-focused on campus sexual assault in the wake of numerous high-profile incidents.

But a terrible August doesn’t necessarily mean a red October for “Birth’s” finances, even if it’s hard to see beyond the mood of the last few weeks. Parker need only look to legendary directors Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, who haven’t seen much of a box office impact from their checkered — at best — sexual histories.

Polanski, who fled to Europe after he found out he was due to be sentenced for a 1977 statutory rape charge, has continued to pump out well-received films like 2002’s “The Pianist,” which made $120 million worldwide on a $35 million budget — and scored Academy Awards for Polanski and lead actor Adrien Brody.

Allen married his wife’s adopted daughter and was accused by daughter Dylan Farrow of sexual abuse, although he was never charged with any crime. Unlike Parker, Polanski was actually convicted of rape, but his victim has a cordial relationship with the director. Parker’s accuser can’t speak: She committed suicide in 2012.

And although some Oscar voters have said they aren’t planning on lining up for Parker’s film, that might be more of an August political statement than an indicator of how they’ll actually behave in October. Exit polling isn’t always a great predictor of elections.

“Birth” should also catch a break by coming out during a weekend where there aren’t obvious competitors for its desired audience. The movie is joined on its release date by two horror thrillers — Universal’s thriller “The Girl on the Train,” a Lionsgate comedy, “Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life” and German import “Friend Request” from Freestyle Releasing. And the following week, there are only two wide releases: “The Accountant,” a Ben Affleck thriller, and a taped Kevin Hart comedy concert.

The international box office has become increasingly important in recent years, and that’s also a place “Birth” might do better than expected. The sexual assault fallout has largely played out in the Los Angeles-based entertainment media and may not have as much of an effect on foreign audiences who might not be reading the wall-to-wall English-language coverage.

Parker told Variety that he decided to produce the movie independent of a studio because he had heard that its subject matter and other qualities would make it a tougher sell.

“I was told that a studio is not going to make this film,” Parker said. “It’s a period film. It’s a drama. It’s an African-American lead. It’s dealing with American injury. And most films about people of color don’t sell foreign.”

However, the last notable period film about the American slave experience — 2013’s “12 Years a Slave” — disproved some of those assumptions. The Steve McQueen epic — also a Fox Searchlight film — made $56.7 million domestically and $187.7 million worldwide on a $22 million budget. It also won Best Picture at the 2014 Academy Awards.

“Birth” had a production budget of only $8 million and comes into theaters with a lot more hype than “12 Years a Slave” did at the time. The 2013 film did have A-listers Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender in the cast, but lead Chiwetel Ejiofor was not yet a household name.

Parker has seen his name recognition rise recently for other reasons, but “Birth’s” box-office appeal was always about the story, not the star. But now, Parker has become the story. Some audiences won’t be able to separate the man from the movie — which is harder for a new name like Parker than an established one like Woody Allen. And while his plan was always to be his film’s lead salesman and charismatic mouthpiece, to give “Birth” the best chance at box office success, Parker will have to let the movie speak for itself. Luckily for Fox Searchlight, it apparently has a lot to say.

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