'Girl on the Train' tops box office with $24.7 million, 'Birth of a Nation' stumbles

Sun Oct 9, 2016 4:27pm EDT
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By Brent Lang

LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - "The Girl on the Train" pulled into the station with a $24.7 million opening, a solid result despite the fact that the mystery debuted as much of the U.S. Southeast was being pummeled by Hurricane Matthew.

Its success is a shot in the arm to DreamWorks, which optioned the Paula Hawkins' best-seller about an alcoholic woman (Emily Blunt), who must piece together a mysterious disappearance. The company has suffered a string of flops in recent years, most recently shouldering the twin duds of "The BFG" and "The Light Between Oceans." However, "The Girl on the Train" kicks off a new five-year distribution deal with Universal Pictures. One that will see the company rebranded as Amblin Partners, complete with backing from Reliance, Entertainment One, and Participant. Over the weekend, Amblin announced that Alibaba Pictures will take an equity stake in the production company. "The Girl on the Train" cost $45 million to make.

"We are thrilled with the results of the first film in our new partnership with Amblin," said Nick Carpou, Universal's domestic distribution chief. "Their passion and commitment to bringing high quality stories to theaters, coupled with our expertise in marketing and distribution, makes for a bright future."

Nate Parker's "The Birth of a Nation" was not as fortunate, premiering to a disappointing $7.1 million across 2,105 theaters. The biopic about slave rebellion leader Nat Turner was a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered to a rapturous standing ovation and sold to Fox Searchlight for a record-shattering $17.5 million. But the release was derailed after rape allegations against Parker and his "The Birth of a Nation" co-writer Jean Celestin resurfaced. Both men were accused of assaulting a college classmate over a decade ago. Though they were ultimately acquitted of those charges, news broke this summer that their accuser had committed suicide in 2012. The ensuing controversy overshadowed the strong reviews and may have hurt the film's Oscar chances.

"This is a pretty pedestrian result," said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. "Clearly, not all press is good press."

Searchlight, however, believes that the film's A CinemaScore could lead to robust word-of-mouth, which might help "The Birth of a Nation" draw an audience in the coming weeks. Distribution chief Frank Rodriguez said he was pleased by how diverse the audience for the film was -- 54% of ticket buyers were African-American and 42% were caucasian. He stressed that it was difficult to know how many people had opted not to see the picture because of coverage of the rape accusation.

"The film stands on its own," said Rodriguez. "What it was before at Sundance, the actual celluloid, the image, is still the same, but the perception may have changed and there's not too much anyone can do about it."

Hurricane Matthew led to theater closures in Florida, South Carolina, and other Southern states. Studio executives that it could have depressed ticket sales by between 2% to 4%.   Continued...

Emily Blunt poses as she arrives at the World premiere of "The Girl on the Train" at Leicester Square in London, Britain September 20, 2016. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez