"The Birth of a Nation"
“The Birth of a Nation”

Nine months after its spectacular Sundance Film Festival premiere, where it was picked up by specialty distributor Fox Searchlight for a record-breaking $17.5 million, Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” is finally set to open in USA theaters this Friday, October 7, 2016.

A film that’s on my 2017 Oscar predictions list, all eyes will certainly be on its box office debut numbers this weekend, as critics and audiences alike wonder how/if the controversy (accusations of rape for which he was acquitted) surrounding the man behind the film (and also its star), will affect ticket sales. There are those who’ve been vocal about not supporting the film, just as there are others who have also been adamant about their plans to definitely see it, regardless of the controversy. I imagine these are debates that will continue beyond this weekend – the all-important opening weekend, which can determine how strongly the distribution company continues to push it, and how long theaters decide to carry it (especially as a signature release in their larger screening rooms).

Indeed Fox Searchlight’s plans for the film are ambitious; to start, the hefty $17.5 million they paid for it was an early indication. Also, initially, the distributor set an opening on 1,500 to 1,800 screens around the country, but would later expand its reach even wider, to the current roughly 2100 screens, broadening the film’s reach beyond the expected arthouse crowd and tapping into the mainstream. In the year of the bigoted, racist, xenophobic, sexist Donald Trump, as well as the growing movement that is #BlackLivesMatter, I’m certainly curious to see how well the film is received – especially in middle America.

I actually expected that Fox Searchlight would first open the film in a limited release, and then gradually expand it nationwide, as is usually the case for films of this size that are picked up at film festivals. Clearly, and maybe somewhat surprisingly, theater owners (who typically prefer to avoid anything that might hurt their bottomline) apparently aren’t concerned about whether the controversy surrounding the film will have much of an impact on ticket sales.

Per Box Office Mojo, “The Birth of a Nation” is one of the widest releases ever from Fox Searchlight – again, a nod to the distributor’s expectations for the film, which Nate Parker wrote, directed and also stars in, playing Nat Turner. The company’s previous Oscar-winning slavery era release, “12 Years a Slave,” 3 years ago, opened in a very limited release on just 19 screens; its widest release, about 3 weeks later, was on just over 1400 screens. Its wide opening drew $6.6 million in ticket sales, en route to a $56 million domestic gross, after 29 weeks in release. It fared even better overseas, earning over $131 million, for a worldwide gross of more than $187 million; not bad at all given the film’s subject matter.

According to box office trackers, “Birth of a Nation” is tracking towards an opening weekend gross of between $7 million and $10 million, which doesn’t seem like much, considering that it’s opening on over 2,000 screens around the country. That’s a per screen average of about $4,000, which, again, for an opening with seemingly high expectations, isn’t spectacular. I think Fox Searchlight would prefer to see double that number, which would mean an opening figure in the mid to high teens (let’s say $15 million+). Word of mouth would have to be strong for the film to have legs that will carry it through successive weeks.

Keep in mind that its an R-rated historical drama, so a wide opening release for a film of this nature is a rare occurrence.

Some trackers are also comparing estimates for “Birth of a Nation” to “Selma,” which Paramount opened on Christmas Day in 2014. “Selma,” initially released in a limited number of theaters, went wide soon thereafter, on 2,179 screens (about the same number that “Birth” will open on this weekend), and earned $11.3 million, en route to a $52 million domestic gross, compared to “12 Years a Slave” which grossed $56 million. So maybe “Birth” will ultimately find itself in a similar range – a $50-something million gross.

This is all speculation of course. It’s anyone’s guess how well the film will do over the long term. And I should also add that I’m not privy to the preferred number that Fox Searchlight is targeting for the open, and the cumulative gross, for them to consider their acquisition a financial success, which is ultimately what matters. The company has certainly been decisive with its marketing of the film, including some, we could say, outside the box thinking, like the launch of the “Birth of a Nation” Sundance Fellowship to support filmmakers of color, and the “Birth of a Nation” voter registration drive, to name 2 initiatives.

Now, obviously, these box office tracking figures could end up being wrong, and the film opens much stronger than expected. it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a film performed a lot better than predicted. If anything, there’s a chance that the controversy might actually help instead of hinder the film. Studio execs could probably argue (and some have in the past with previous controversial titles) that the continuous coverage and discussion of the controversy has actually served as *free* marketing for the film.

Set against the antebellum South, “The Birth of a Nation” follows Nat Turner, a literate slave and preacher, whose financially strained owner, Samuel Turner, accepts an offer to use Nat’s preaching to subdue unruly slaves. After witnessing countless atrocities against fellow slaves, Nat devises a plan to lead his people to freedom.

Joining Parker (who also wrote and directed the film) in front of the camera are Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Gabrielle Union, Mark Boone Jr. and others.

Watch the film’s trailer below: