Universal/DreamWorks’ The Girl on the Train led all new releases at the box office with a near-$25 million haul as Nate Parker’s slave epic The Birth of a Nation faltered under the weight of its own controversy this weekend.
The Girl on the Train, adapted from Paula Hawkins’ best-selling novel, opened to an estimated $24.7 million from 3,144 locations, according to Box Office Mojo, good enough for a first-place finish.
The Emily Blunt-starring thriller — which reportedly cost less than $50 million to make — performed well among female moviegoers, who made up 68 percent of the audience, even as the film earned lukewarm reviews from critics.
Meanwhile, the Nat Turner slave rebellion pic The Birth of a Nation picked up an estimated $7.1 million from 2,105 theaters this weekend, an underwhelming result for Fox Searchlight, which acquired the movie for a record $17.5 million at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
Birth of a Nation has been mired in controversy for months as a 1999 rape charge against the film’s writer, director and star, Nate Parker, resurfaced in media interviews this summer. Parker and his college roommate and Birth co-writer Jean Celestin were accused of rape while at Penn State in 1999; Parker was ultimately acquitted of the charges, while Celestin was convicted but had his conviction overturned on appeal.
The controversy caused a massive headache for the studio, which had hoped the film would be a favorite at this year’s Academy Awards. Fox Searchlight initially worked to limit Parker’s media appearances while some screenings of the film were cancelled amid growing backlash.
Parker had mostly been kept out of the film’s marketing activity until last week, when he sat for a pair of television interviews on 60 Minutes and Good Morning America.
“I was falsely accused, I was proven innocent and I’m not going to apologize for that,” an unrepentant Parker told GMA host Robin Roberts last week when asked about the case.
Meanwhile, the Hollywood Reporter reported that Fox Searchlight — which also conducted a voter registration drive ahead of showings of the film in small movie theaters in swing states — will now focus its awards efforts on its other buzzed-about upcoming film, the Natalie Portman-starring Jaqueline Kennedy biopic Jackie.
Birth of a Nation — also starring Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Colman Domingo, Aja Naomi King and Gabrielle Union — scored a solid 79 percent from critics on Rotten Tomatoes and an “A” CinemaScore from audiences.
The weekend’s other new wide release, Lionsgate/CBS Films’ teen-targeted Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, brought in an estimated $6.9 million from 2,822 theaters.
Holdovers Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Deepwater Horizon, The Magnificent Seven and Storks were projected to finish in second, third, fourth and fifth place, respectively.
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