New York — "Festival fever" is the name the film industry gives to the inflated reception a movie can experience at a festival, where exuberant audiences and the competition of negotiations can ratchet up a film's hype and price tag. But what can appear a surefire hit in the mountains of Sundance can turn into an expensive headache on the way to theatres.
As Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation continues to be enveloped in a rape case from 1999, Fox Searchlight — the art-house studio that plunked down a Sundance Film Festival record of $17.5m for the distribution rights to the Nat Turner slave rebellion drama — might be questioning its sizable investment.
The fortunes of The Birth of a Nation, to be released Oct. 7, are very much in flux as the details of a 17-year-old rape accusation are derailing the film's expected march into Oscar season. The Birth of a Nation, co-written, directed and starring Parker, has been celebrated as an urgent and important film for both an America roiled by protest over racial equality, and for Hollywood, which is still dealing with a diversity crisis.
But the newfound attention on Parker has dredged up a rape allegation made against him when he was a student and wrestler at Penn State University. Parker was acquitted, though his college roommate, Jean Celestin (who helped create The Birth of a Nation) was initially found guilty of sexual assault. That conviction was later overturned when the accuser declined to testify for a retrial.
The case garnered a lot of attention at Penn State. Parker and Celestin allegedly harassed the accuser on campus. The incident spawned a civil lawsuit by the woman against the college with a settlement of $17 500. But, as was first reported Tuesday, the accuser, after several previous attempts, committed suicide in 2012. Her brother, identified only as Johnny, told The Hollywood Reporter , "If I were to look back on her very short life and point to one moment where I think she changed as a person, it was obviously that point."
Fox continues to support Parker
Fox Searchlight on Wednesday declined to comment on the revelations. On Friday, the company said it stood behind Parker and the film.
Now married with five daughters, Parker posted on his Facebook page late Tuesday that he was "filled with profound sorrow" after learning the fate of the woman Tuesday and regretted that he didn't show "enough empathy."
"While I maintain my innocence that the encounter was unambiguously consensual, there are things more important than the law," he wrote. "There is morality."
Where this leaves one of the fall's marque films is an open question. Sasha Stone, a veteran Oscar pundit and editor of AwardsDaily.com, says the situation is unlike any she's seen before. Though she has mixed feelings about the quick-to-judge mob mentality of social media, she believes the awards prospects of "The Birth of a Nation" have likely been irreparably damaged.
"I don't know how you separate those details and those actions from the guy people are supposed to be celebrating," says Stone. "It's going to be hard enough for Nate Parker to walk into a room in Hollywood now, let alone win awards."
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The awards fate of The Birth of a Nation is particularly crucial because the film was hailed as a timely corrective for a Hollywood. It screened when "OscarsSoWhite" was rampant and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was under siege over the inclusiveness of its membership and its annual nominees. After its Sundance premiere, Variety wrote "It's hard to imagine a scenario where Parker isn't a strong contender for best actor."
To land the film, Fox Searchlight had to bid against Netflix, which reportedly offered $20m. Fox Searchlight, though, promised a robust release of at least 1,500 screens, a wide release for any Sundance indie. That means pressure isn't just on the film to woo awards but to draw at the box office.
Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations, believes there's time to turn the story of The Birth of a Nation back on the film.
"Bringing this to light now, months before its release, is potentially a good thing for the studio ... and by the time the film debuts in theaters, the focus will again be on the film, and not the filmmaker's past," says Bock.
In early September, the film will play at the Toronto International Film Festival. A representative for the festival said Wednesday that "TIFF is proud to help bring Birth of a Nation and the important story it tells to audiences."
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Moviegoers have this year been frequently faced with a moral decision at the theater ticket window.
Just as Woody Allen's 1930s Hollywood drama was premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, Ronan Farrow renewed questions over the director's continued embrace by festivals, filmgoers and critics. Since opening in mid-July, Cafe Society — a Lionsgate and Amazon Studios release — has made $8.6 million at the box office, more than twice what his last film, Irrational Man, made in 2015, but a fraction of the $33.4 million taken in by Allen's Oscar-nominated "Blue Jasmine" in 2013.
In May, Disney's Alice Through the Looking Glass debuted just days after Amber Heard, Johnny Depp's estranged wife, alleged domestic abuse against the actor. Depp denied it, but Alice Through the Looking Glass opened with just $26.9m, about half what the studio had expected before the allegations.
Although the 36-year-old Parker is a well-known and acclaimed actor, he is only just stepping into the spotlight. The Birth of a Nation is, for many, their earliest encounter with Parker. So far, recent events are not supporting a good first impression.