Executives at Fox Searchlight are scrambling to deal with the aftermath of a series of interviews last week in which the star and director of “The Birth of A Nation,” Nate Parker, addressed a rape trial from his past.
The specialty films division bet big on the indie at the Sundance Film Festival, shelling out a record-breaking $17.5 million for drama about the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, hoping it would enter the zeitgeist at a time when racial issues are at the forefront of American politics.
But now, the studio is taking a wait and see approach to a proposed ambitious release plan that had called for extensive outreach to church groups, college campuses and prominent Hollywood figures. Parker not only stars in “The Birth of a Nation ” — he also wrote, directed and produced the film.
Fox Searchlight declined to comment on this article. In a statement on Friday, the studio said: “Fox Searchlight is aware of the incident that occurred while Nate Parker was at Penn State. We also know that he was found innocent and cleared of all charges. We stand behind Nate and are proud to help bring this important and powerful story to the screen.”
Despite the fact that Parker was acquitted of the rape charges in 2001, there are still concerns inside Fox Searchlight that the complicated issues raised by the case could overshadow a movie that was expected to be an Oscar front-runner. Parker’s co-writer on the film, Jean Celestin, was found guilty of sexually assaulting the same 18-year-old female, who claimed to be unconscious, after a night of drinking. Celestin appealed the verdict and was granted a new trial in 2005, but the case never made it back to court after the woman decided not to testify again.
According to sources, studio executives at Searchlight are assessing the fallout from a fresh round of stories about the incident on prominent news sites and African-American-targeted sites. The studio held a meeting on Monday morning with Parker’s team, and they are considering not granting new interviews with Parker from now until the movie debuts at the Toronto Film Festival in September. The hope is that by addressing the case well in advance of the movie’s festival run and October 7 debut, Parker can put it behind him by the time audiences get to see the movie.
Searchlight is also still trying to determine what the impact of the 1999 Penn State case will have on Parker as the face of the “The Birth of the Nation.” Part of the sales agreement for the film called for the label to support a roadshow that would have sent Parker around the country, to churches and college campuses, discussing issues of social justice. But each public appearance runs the risk of journalists or audience members reviving details of the court case and raising difficult questions.
A rival distribution executive said that Searchlight would need to give Parker better media training: “That means coaching him carefully. If he responds badly to a question, everything gets worse.” The distribution executive also wondered if the charges could upset enough potential Oscar voters to derail the film’s hopes for Academy Awards attention.
Searchlight had devised an aggressive strategy for getting word out about the movie. The distributor was going to rely on prominent African-American filmmakers to talk up the importance of Parker at a time when the industry is grappling with ways to promote more diverse voices.
Parker, a devout Christian, was also going to directly sell the story of Nat Turner — himself a preacher — to churches and religious groups. He’d already given one of his first major post-Sundance interviews this month to Christianity Today. But questions about Parker’s past could also dissuade religious audiences from buying tickets to see “The Birth of A Nation.”
If Searchlight wants to make a profit on the film, it’s critical that “The Birth of a Nation” expand its audience beyond art house crowds. Rival executives estimate that for a film of this nature to be profitable, the studio will need to make $50 million during its domestic run. As part of the terms of the Sundance deal, Searchlight agreed to show “The Birth of a Nation” on 1,500 screens, which makes the movie a major release for the boutique label, a division of Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox.
Following a rapturous debut at the Eccles Theatre in Sundance, bidding on the film heated up before the end credits had even rolled. Several distributors, among them Paramount, Sony, Netflix, The Weinstein Co. and Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios, rushed to make their pitch directly to Parker and his producers. One source told Variety that the scramble to cook up slides to outline the details of their release strategy left them with little time to do any kind of research on Parker’s past. That meant that some of the bidders had no idea he was involved in a criminal trial in college.
Another source added that executives at Searchlight weren’t aware of the allegations at the time that they offered $17.5 million for the film, and only learned about the trial when reports about it started to trickle out on smaller blogs. By then, the ink had already dried on the deal. It did, however, give Searchlight months to figure out possible ways to address the issue when it inevitably became public.
In 1999, Parker, a student and wrestler at Penn State, and Celestin were charged with raping a female classmate in their apartment after a night of drinking. The woman claimed she was unconscious at the time, while Parker and Celestin maintained that the encounter was consensual. Both men were suspended from the wrestling team, and Parker later transferred to a different college in Oklahoma.
Parker and the victim had an earlier sexual encounter that both said was consensual, a detail that was emphasized by his legal team in court. The victim said she was harassed by the men after she reported the incident to police. She dropped out of college, and settled with Penn State for $17,500 in a separate legal action.
In its initial posters and trailers, Fox Searchlight seemed eager to give “The Birth of a Nation” a politically charged campaign. The first poster featured Parker as Turner with a noose fashioned out of an American flag around his neck. “The tone in their marketing has been provocative and even a little angry,” said a rival studio executive. “The poster image is incredibly bold, but in this context, it changes the cadence of the campaign. That tone is going to be harder to maintain.”