Last weekend, I broke down the reasons for the weak box office opening of “The Queen of Katwe”. A week later, I will attempt to do so again – this time with Nate Parker’s “Birth of a Nation”. The film opened on 2105 screens across the country, which is the sixth largest release for any film released by Fox Searchlight, but it came in sixth place grossing only $7.1 million, the lower end of box office analyst expectations.
Depending on the drop-off in the coming weeks, which I predict could be steep, the film could gross in total around $20 million, which could make it a loss for Fox Searchlight, who spent $17.5 million to acquire the independently produced and financed film, and probably spent almost equal that amount on marketing.
So what happened? Let us count the ways, shall we?
— Slavery: I argue that this was a greater impediment for the film than the controversy over the rape case involving Parker and co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin (but I’ll get to that in moment). How many times have we heard from black film-goers that they are sick and tired of films centering on slavery? One can understand that opinion. Black history and people are lot more than just slavery, and there are endless stories of black heroism, courage, survival, and pride that have nothing to do with slavery, but they’re not making enough movies about that.
And “Nation” tells the story of a slave rebellion which ended in failure. It’s not a fantasy like “Django Unchained” in which the hero kills all the white people as well as the sell out, bootlicking Uncle Tom slave, and then blows up the plantation, riding off into the sunset with his sweetheart. “Django” is not realistic by any means, but it’s how we wish it had really played out in real life. But In “Nation”, it all ends with Turner getting lynched. Not exactly a coming-out-of-the-theater-feeling-good movie. And it’s a wildly historically inaccurate film as well, as Parker takes some creative liberties with the real story. Turner’s rebellion was an extraordinary, fantastic real-life occurrence. So if a filmmaker isn’t going to tell the story of Nat Turner exactly as it happened, then why bother making it? It should also be noted that it wasn’t the only slave rebellion that happened either. There were even larger rebellions – like in Louisiana, in 1811, which involved hundreds of slaves.
— The rape case controversy: There was always a question of how the rape controversy from Parker’s past would effect the film. Certainly Parker often didn’t help himself early on, when he spoke or wrote about the issue, seemingly painting himself as the victim, while showing little remorse for the woman at the center of it all, who would commit suicide years later. In fact one wag said “Who’s doing Parker’s PR? Chris Brown?”.
A few days ago, The Hollywood Reporter reported that even Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King, who actually both loved the film, reached out to Parker to offer support and guidance on how to address the controversy, including suggesting he give an interview to King on her CBS morning show. But he rejected their overtures, convinced that he had nothing to apologize for. He also rejected the advice of professional PR and media strategists who Searchlight hired to coach him – at first agreeing to acting on what they advised, but then doing the exact opposite.
And Searchlight wasn’t operating in the dark. They were fully aware of Parker’s past when they purchased the film at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. According to people I know who attended the festival, the rape case was on the mouths of many at the festival the day after the film premiered. But Searchlight evidently thought that it wasn’t going to be much of an issue. However, clearly they were wrong, given all that’s happened since then.
For a lot of people, it was an issue; especially for black women conflicted about seeing the film. They wanted to support the film, but were disgusted by what Parker had done, although Parker was acquitted. Some female friends told me that they either had decided not to see the film, or would pay for a ticket to see “The Magnificent Seven” and instead go to the theater showing “Nation”, so that neither Searchlight nor Parker would get any of their money as a form of protest. There is no hard evidence, but I believe that many women were reluctant to see the film because of Parker’s past, though they probably will watch it later on home video.
— It’s just not good enough: Yes the film got rapturous raves at Sundance, even a reported standing ovation before the premiere screening at the festival, which maybe should’ve been a sign that something was up. Well, as Vulture revealed, the majority of people in the audience for the first screening of “Nation” were actually people who worked on the film, or were involved in putting up the money for it, so naturally they’re going to give a standing ovation before they saw it.
And it didn’t hurt either that the film was first seen at a time when #OscarsSoWhite uproar was at its peak, so distributors were looking for any black film that could be remotely considered as Oscar bait, and “Nation” seemed to fit the bill at the time, causing a stampede of offers to acquire the film.
However, the reality is that, even at Sundance, there were some people openly saying that they weren’t all that impressed with the film, adding that it had problems, and showed evidence of a first time director, unsure of himself behind the camera. The reviews that came out over this weekend, when the film opened, have been, for the most part, respectable, but not enthusiastic; and it’s gotten some negative reviews as well. Some people I know who have seen it, didn’t like it, or were sorely disappointed in the film for not being the emotional, earth shattering event that they were led to believe it was. This could affect word of mouth.
Although for a counter to their reactions, read Andre Seewood’s enthusiastic review of the film (published on this blog yesterday), here.
Certainly “Nation’s” Oscars chances have been greatly diminished. However, Oscar voters still concerned about the lack of diversity at the Academy Awards next year, have other black films to pick from, including “Fences”, which will almost certainly get nominations in every major category; there’s also Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” and Fox’s “Hidden Figures”. And Fox Searchlight is now shifting its Oscar focus away from “Nation” and to “Jackie” instead – the Natalie Portman film about the life of Jacqueline Kennedy shortly after the assassination of her husband, President John Kennedy, which is an Oscar bait movie if ever there was one.
How will all of this affect “Nation” and Parker in the long run? It will most likely be seen as both a case of a film and a filmmaker that got caught up in a media-driven, manufactured frenzy that perhaps wasn’t deserved. As for Parker, he’s currently in “movie jail”, not just because of the past accusations of rape, but also the box office disappointment of “Nation”. However, if the film somehow becomes a big box office hit, perhaps overseas, then that would definitely change his fortunes. But right now, it’s uncertain if the film will do well internationally. He currently has another project set up at Legendary Pictures that could be stuck in “development hell” permanently, and maybe not be made. But he could do what worked for him before, and to try to make another film independently; and I can safely predict that whatever it is won’t tell a slavery era story, and he’ll just stay behind that camera as the director.
But as weak as “Nation” is doing at the box office, it’s nowhere as bad as the disaster film “Deepwater Horizon”, which is turning out to be perhaps the biggest box office bomb of the fall. The film, which opened last week, ended up in third place, with $11.7 million, and a total of $38.5 million so far. However, the film’s budget reportedly ballooned up to $156 million, which means that it has a long, long way to go, just to break even; even if you add up the overseas box office numbers, which are at $27 million so far. It’s going to be another huge loss for Lionsgate, who need a real box office hit soon, with the end of “The Hunger Games” franchise last year.
The number one film this week was “The Girl on the Train”, based on the best selling book, dubbed by one critic as “Gone Girl if it was written by a 12 year old”. Needless to say, the book has resulted in a bad film, which got terrible reviews; but it did well enough to be No. 1 this weekend, earning $24.6 million, which is ok for a film the cost under $40 million to make.
Last week’s No. 1 film “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” was No. 2 this weekend, with just over $51 million here in the States, and over $96 million worldwide; while “The Magnificent Seven” is still holding up well (maybe thanks to all the black women who bought tickets for it, but saw “Nation” instead) in fourth place, earning $75 million domestically, and $115 million worldwide. It’s likely headed for at least another $40 million domestically, and another $60-$70 million overseas.
Meanwhile “The Queen of Katwe” unfortunately dropped even lower on this weekend, while “Don’t Breathe” continues to hold up well, with $131 million worldwide, making the $9 million film one of the most financially successful films of the year.
This weekend’s top 12 grossing films follow below:
1) The Girl on the Train Uni. $24,660,000
2) Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children Fox $15,000,000 Total: $51,053,483
3) Deepwater Horizon LG/S $11,750,000 Total: $38,518,388
4) The Magnificent Seven (Sony $9,150,000 Total: $75,915,393
5) Storks WB $8,450,000 Total: $50,118,494
6) The Birth of a Nation FoxS $7,100,000
7) Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life LGF $6,900,000
8) Sully WB $5,270,000 Total: $113,485,432
9) Masterminds Rela. $4,100,000 Total: $12,788,325
10 7 Queen of Katwe BV $1,618,000 Total: $5,384,636
11) Don’t Breathe SGem $1,350,000 Total: $86,921,355
12) Suicide Squad WB $1,110,000 Total: $322,533,924