LOS ANGELES • Any lingering hope that The Birth Of A Nation could push past a controversy surrounding its star Nate Parker to become a financial success and an awards contender appeared to end over the weekend, when it arrived to an estimated US$7.1 million (S$9.7 million) in ticket sales - flop territory, especially when the film was backed by an aggressive marketing campaign.
The film, which Parker directed, wrote and produced, received stellar reviews, but lost momentum as his handling of questions on the publicity circuit about his past behaviour - he was accused and acquitted of rape in 1999 - triggered a negative reaction towards him and his movie.
Over the past week, Parker generated one damaging headline after another as he appeared on TV to promote it. Last Friday, The Hollywood Reporter summed it up in blunt terms: "Nate Parker's Failed Media Tour: Anger, No Remorse And Oprah's Advice Ignored."
Fox Searchlight, having paid the highest price in its history, US$17.5 million, to acquire the movie, which dramatises the 1831 Nat Turner slave revolt, contended that it was too early to assess the film's financial picture.
Given its start, Parker's film - even with strong word-of-mouth - will be lucky to collect a total of US$30 million at the domestic box office, analysts said. Under traditional accounting rules, theatre owners would keep about half that total. Fox Searchlight also spent at least US$10 million on marketing.
Also, the film is not expected to generate much interest overseas. It tells an American story and its stars are not well known outside of North America.
In some ways, the poor performance of The Birth Of A Nation, seen as a corrective to the #OscarsSo White maelstrom that consumed Hollywood over the past two years, opens a corridor for and adds pressure to coming films about African-American experiences.
Fences, an adaptation of the August Wilson play starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, arrives on Dec 25. Moonlight, a coming-of-age drama centred on a young black man in Miami, comes out on Oct 21.
For the weekend, the No. 1 movie in North America was The Girl On The Train, starring Emily Blunt and which took about US$24.7 million, according to comScore, which compiles box-office data. Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children was second, taking in about US$15 million. In third place was Deepwater Horizon, with US$11.8 million in ticket sales.