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‘Birth of a Nation’ and ‘Girl on the Train’ Hit Box Office Tracking: How Will They Fare?

It’s still early to be betting on box office for the October 7-9 weekend, but observers are wondering just how much the controversy surrounding Nate Parker’s 17-year old rape charge will impact the wide opening of “The Birth of a Nation.”

Another question is how well “The Girl on the Train” will do in a similar slot as “Gone Girl” two years ago, but without the name-value benefit of David Fincher and Ben Affleck.

Three weeks before opening, “The Birth of a Nation” is tracking for a domestic opening weekend in the $9 million to $10 million range at 1,500-plus locations. That would be a respectable amount for an R-rated historical drama.

Universal’s mystery-drama “The Girl on the Train,” starring Emily Blunt, is likely to lead the weekend with as much as $30 million — though one tracking service placed its estimate closer to $18 million.

Fox Searchlight bought “The Birth of a Nation” for a record-breaking $17.5 million following its premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival. Parker produced, directed from his own script along with starring as Nat Turner in the story of the 1831 slave rebellion.

The terms of the deal required Fox Searchlight to open the movie on at least 1,500 screens in the U.S., perhaps hoping to capitalize on the publicity for what would have been a polarizing film even before Parker’s personal controversy. A wide release for a festival film with awards potential is fairly unusual, since most films of that nature open in very limited release before expanding wide. That makes it tricky to find a  clear box office comparison.

Fox Searchlight also handled best picture Oscar winner “12 Years a Slave,” which dealt with the pre-Civil War struggle of Solomon Northrop, and went on to gross $56 million. “12 Years” opened with 19 sites in its opening weekend in October, 2013, then expanded to 123 in its second frame, 410 in its third and 1,140 in its fourth — generating its top weekend with $6.7 million — before finishing with $56 million and a trio of Oscars including supporting actress for Lupita Nyong’o and adapted screenplay for John Ridley.

Estimates for “Birth of a Nation” could also be compared to “Selma,” which Paramount opened on Christmas Day in 2014. “Selma” took in $2 million in two weeks of limited release, then went wide with $11.3 million at 2,179 sites. The civil rights drama, directed by Ava DuVernay, received a best picture Oscar nomination, and showed staying power with $52 million in domestic gross.

Another possible comparison is the Sony/Screen Gems 2014 thriller “No Good Deed,” starring Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henson, which likewise had a fall release date and opened on 2,175 screens. “No Good Deed” won the box office in its opening weekend with $25.4 million and finished with $54 million; Henson won an Image Award for her performance.

“The Birth of a Nation” received stellar reviews at Sundance, where it won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. But its awards momentum stalled last month when news emerged that Parker and his friend, Jean Celestin, who is credited as a writer on “Birth of a Nation,” were charged in 1999 with raping an 18-year old college student, who said she was unconscious after drinking heavily.

Both men said the sex was consensual and Parker was acquitted of the rape charges in 2001, but Celestin was found guilty of sexual assault. He appealed the verdict and was granted a new trial in 2005, but the case never made it back to court after the woman declined to testify again. Variety broke the news last month that the unidentified victim killed herself in 2012 after swallowing nearly 200 sleeping pills.

Parker and the rest of the cast appeared at the Toronto Film Festival for a screening on Sept. 9, which evoked a standing ovation. Parker participated in a press conference but declined to discuss the rape during the festival. He will discuss the film at several screenings around the country over the next few weeks.

“The Girl on the Train” stars Emily Blunt, portraying a woman whose post-divorce life slowly disintegrates amid the accusation that she murdered her ex-husband’s nanny. It’s adapted from Paula Hawkins’ bestseller, directed by Tate Taylor (“The Help”) and was developed at DreamWorks.

But despite also being based on a bestselling mystery, “The Girl on the Train” doesn’t quite have the assembled starpower of its most obvious comparison. The Fincher-directed “Gone Girl,” an October 2014 release from Fox starred Affleck and Rosamund Pike and became a solid hit, opening with $37.5 million at 3,014 North American theaters on Oct. 3-5 to wind up with $167 million domestically and $201 million internationally.

Universal has not disclosed how many theaters it has booked for “The Girl on the Train.”

CBS Films/Lionsgate is also opening family comedy “Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life” on Oct. 7 with early tracking in the $8 million to $10 million range. Freestyle Releasing’s thriller “Friend Request” is likely to bring up the rear among new openers that weekend.

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