*Fox Searchlight bet the bank on Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” after a screening set the Sundance Film Festival on fire. But moviegoers have largely steered clear, leaving the distributor looking at a possible net loss in the millions.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, box office for the slave-rebellion drama plunged 60 percent in its second weekend, a nasty drop for a film that expected to remain strong throughout awards season.
“Birth” was purchased for a record $17.5 million at Sundance and Fox Searchlight spent an estimated $18 million more on marketing. But the film has earned just $12.3 million as of Oct. 17, which may or may not be due to the publicity surrounding Parker’s 1999 rape case that resurfaced in the past months.
THR reports on Fox Searchlight’s projected financial hit:
Some box-office observers believe the loss will be at least $10 million, considering the film likely will earn no more than $16 million or $17 million domestically. Searchlight declined comment, but Fox insiders insist the loss will be $7 million at most — and perhaps less than $5 million — since Searchlight’s films go through lucrative international TV deals. There also will be revenue from U.S. home entertainment, which could equal box-office gross.
Analyst Eric Handler of MKM Partners doesn’t believe Birth is a total debacle despite the negative attention on Parker’s involvement in a 1999 rape case and the suicide of the woman who alleged Parker and Birth co-writer Jean Celestin assaulted her. “They are part of a big studio, so this will be a rounding error,” says Handler. Still, it’s been a bruising experience for the specialty distributor.
Parker’s film was considered an Oscar frontrunner out of Sundance, and Searchlight presidents Stephen Gilula and Nancy Utley hoped for a repeat of 12 Years a Slave, which won best picture and grossed $187.7 million worldwide, including a stunning $131.6 million overseas.
But without Oscar attention, Birth may gross only $5 million to $10 million overseas. (Parker’s agency, CAA, is said to be pushing Searchlight for an awards campaign, but it’s not clear how much of a push it will receive.)
The big question is how Parker’s drama would have fared had the rape trial not resurfaced. “This is a tough movie, and it gave audiences an excuse not to go see it,” concludes one veteran distributor.
Box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian agrees: “While Birth of a Nation may have had some commercial limitations due to its intensity, period setting and subject matter, the promise of success that was once seemingly preordained when the film was picked up at Sundance was derailed by the unfortunate extemporaneous baggage that followed the movie once news of the Parker controversy broke.”