Box Office Round Up – October 7 – 9, 2016


Get behind the numbers of last week’s box office! This week, Chris Neumer looks at the tale of Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation and realizes that, despite the near unanimous media narrative that the film flopped, it finished exactly where you’d expect it to.

by Chris Neumer

            The Birth of a Nation came out last Friday, so I want to talk a bit about race and where we are as a society in the United States at present.

Over the course of the last few years, outrage has become an internet business model. Angry people read more articles and click on more links than do happy people. This was something that radio broadcasters learned in the ‘80s: people who hated Howard Stern listened to him more than his most ardent fans did. Thus, articles that get people angry have become the life-blood of most online media outlets. Is it really any wonder that Donald Trump is such a headline mainstay? Negativity sells!

In general, there are three levels of outrage, the majority of which don’t mean anything or impact anyone. 98% of the time, a story will come out, people will be outraged, post links on social media with an intro like, “Can you believe this?” and that’s it. The company or companies involved shrug and everyone moves on.

In rare instances, the media will note the volume of online outrage over a certain event and throw some gasoline on the fire by running the story in their outlet or adding a few (occasionally fabricated) details. If nothing else happens, the company or companies involved shrug and everyone moves on.

And then, once in a blue moon, the public will latch onto a story. It becomes major news, hits the airwaves and is a topic of discussion everywhere. It’s so big, your mom not only knows about it, but has brought it up at Sunday dinner. When a story reaches this level, it’s when the proverbial shit hits the proverbial fan. The company or companies at the heart of the story snap into immediate action and do whatever they can to right the wrong, fix the problem and show the world that they do care about their customers.*

* There is technically a fourth level of outrage, but since it’s a billion-to-one shot that is reserved for dentists who hunt lions and publicists who tweet about not getting AIDS, I mention it only in passing. In the event that you are at the center of a level four outrage, I’m sorry, there’s absolutely nothing you can do. Your life is ruined and years later, you will still be a worthy subject of an article.

The problem with the action on the company or companies parts is that it’s meaningless. If they actually cared about the problem, they would have done something about it when they first noticed it, not when news of it went viral and then threatened to impact their business.

Earlier this year, Hollywood experienced its own presence in a (negative) viral media storm. With not one actor of color nominated for any of the 20 acting awards presented by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), the hashtag OscarSoWhite immediately began trending. America’s outrage quickly grew to immense proportions. The AMPAS immediate announced major changes in the way their members would vote in the future and, in so many words, announced that old white guys were going to be pushed out. Said the AMPAS president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, “… [This will] begin the process of significantly changing our membership composition.”

New heads of departments were going to be created, new voting rules were put in place for the awards and the AMPAS was going to make a real effort to diversify its membership. This mollified the protestors to a large degree and the matter dropped from the national radar soon after. The only problem with this was that 7 weeks after the AMPAS announced its radical new changes to diversify its organization, news began to trickle out that everything the AMPAS’s publicists had said came with a very large footnote: all changes would have to be voted on and approved by the members of the AMPAS board before they could be put into action.

In July of 2016, the results of the AMPAS’s Board of Governors vote were released and almost nothing changed. Sure, the AMPAS is trumpeting that it doubled—DOUBLED!!!—the number of African-Americans on its board, but what they don’t say anywhere near as loudly is that the actual total of African-Americans on the board went from 2 to 4. While this is technically an improvement, the number of women on the board went from 17 down to 16.

Another result of the OscarSoWhite movement was the studios began to green-light and acquire a significant amount of dramas with black leads. The poster child for this was director/producer/star Nate Parker’s historical epic, Birth of a Nation.

  A few days prior to the release of the Oscar nominations, Birth of a Nation played at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews and standing ovations. Parker couldn’t have planned it any better. Fox Searchlight ended up scooping up the rights to the film for an astounding $17.5 million. It was crazy money! It was more than any other film had ever previously gotten by a large margin. Prior to Birth of a Nation, the highest reported sales at Sundance were of $10 million for two different films, Manchester by the Sea and The Way, Way Back. And Birth of a Nation’s $17.5 million price tag was brought on almost entirely by the circumstances surrounding OscarSoWhite.

On its face, the move to acquire Birth of a Nation was designed to show America that Hollywood cares about diversity and the plight of African-Americans. With this in mind, I was quite curious to see how Fox Searchlight was going to market and release Parker’s film. Yes, they certainly hit a speed bump when the media began delving into Parker’s history of alleged gang rape, but that wasn’t going to impact the way Fox Searchlight rolled the film out to theaters. As such, I was incredibly curious to see whether Fox Searchlight aimed Birth of a Nation at all audiences, something that would fit with their desired diversity campaign, or whether they were going to simply aim it at African-American audiences and call it a day.

As I have previously noted, studios see movies with black leads in one of two ways: they are classified as either movies white people will see or movies white people won’t see. Movies in the first category usually involve Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman. They open in 3,000+ theaters (like The Magnificent Seven or London Has Fallen) and have lengthy theatrical runs. Movies in the second category often involve actors like Morris Chestnut and Michael Ealy. They open in around 2,100 theaters, get an incredibly limited foreign release if any at all, and make the supreme majority of their money in their first two weeks of release.

Given the year-long, national coverage that Parker’s Birth of a Nation has received, I assumed that Fox Searchlight would have the film open in at least 3,000 theaters.

I assumed wrong though. Birth of a Nation opened in 2,105 theaters. That’s a hair below this year’s other black themed films, Race (2,369) and a smidge above Fifty Shades of Black (2,075).

There are a lot of stories out there delving into Birth of a Nation’s huge belly flop at the box office, as it took in just $7 million. Seeing these articles in reputable publications like The NY Times, The Wall Street Journal and Vanity Fair, it’s easy to blame the film’s box office on the rape controversy involving Parker. Easy, but probably not correct.

Here’s another figure to keep in mind when judging whether Birth of a Nation really flopped hard: its $7 million opening weekend places it exactly between Race’s $7.3 million opening and Fifty Shades of Black’s $5.9 million opening, right where you’d expect it to be given the number of theaters it opened in.


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