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Why Was the Audience for ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Made Up Mostly of Women?

The controversial film’s success with female filmgoers provides yet another indication that audiences decide for themselves whether accusations against an artist will affect their ticket-buying decisions.
Why did so many women turn out to see the passion project of an accused violator of women?

Why did so many women turn out to see the passion project of an accused violator of women?

It seemed like the bidding for Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation began the moment the lights came back on following the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January. In the end, it was Fox Searchlight’s record-setting $17.5 million offer that secured the distribution rights—and earned the film an extraordinary amount of post #OscarsSoWhite Hollywood hype.

So when Parker’s biopic about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in 1831 was eventually slated for a mid-October release, smack in the middle of Oscar buzz season, analysts (including this one) predicted at least a modest (around $10 million) box-office success. This, despite the unfolding news that Parker had been accused of rape in 1999 while a student at Pennsylvania State University—and the murmurs of women “boycotting” the film on social media as a result.

With opening weekend box-office results in for The Birth of a Nation, it appears those analysts overshot their mark. Earning $7.1 million across 2,105 theaters in its opening weekend, Parker’s movie was a major commercial disappointment for Fox Searchlight. And yet it’s clear that a women-led box-office boycott wasn’t to blame: Women made up the majority of the opening weekend’s audience: Sixty-one percent of the film’s opening-night audience, using CinemaScore’s metrics (which looks at about four theaters); and 55 percent of the opening weekend’s, going by comScore’s.

Once again we’re reminded that social-media box-office boycotts don’t work, and that audiences decide for themselves whether accusations against an artist will affect their ticket-buying decisions. “People don’t base their moviegoing decisions on anything other than the movie and the marketing,” comScore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian says of the movie’s opening-weekend totals. “The fact that women were a bigger part of the audience just proves that it’s up to the audience to decide what movies and filmmakers they want to support, and how much stock they put in reports of personal life negative situations of filmmakers.”

In 2013, researchers at the University of California–Irvine found that “star power”—an actor, producer, or director appearing on Premier’s annual listing of the hundred most powerful people in Hollywood—has no bearing on a film’s success. They argued that films are unique products that rise and fall based on their own appeal with audiences: “The real star is the movie,” they wrote, discarding the notion that certain celebrities are more “bankable” onscreen than others.

But why did women in particular flock to The Birth of a Nation? The film’s premise and theme may have been especially appealing to women in the general audience: The film’s demographics are “comparable”—similar in terms of Motion Picture Association of America rating, genre, and audience demographics—only to that of 2014’s Selma, which itself saw a 61 percent female moviegoer ratio. “The audience that went to Selma must have gone to this one,” says Ed Mintz, the president of CinemaScore. “They were looking for that storyline about what blacks had to do to break through societal barriers.”

The past few years have shown that women tend to turn up for period pieces with racially diverse casts: They constituted the majority of the audience for 2013’s The Butler (60 percent), 2011’s The Help (74 percent), and last year’s Straight Outta Compton (52 percent), even though the latter was another film featuring an accused woman abuser, Dr. Dre.

In the case of The Birth of a Nation, perhaps religion played a role too. Turner, the film’s de facto protagonist, was a traveling preacher who justified violence with scripture; and The Birth of a Nation’s marketing campaign particularly capitalized on the film’s appeal to faith-based audiences: Fox Searchlight disseminated 80,000 pamphlets about the film to churches that instructed congressional leaders on how to weave the film into their sermons as part of a $10 million marketing effort, the New York Times reported earlier this month.

More female filmgoers cite biblical and religious films as their all-time favorite films than male filmgoers do, according to a 1998 study by the University of California–Los Angeles. Black women in particular flock to “gospel films” like The Gospel (70 percent female audience) and Diary of a Mad Black Woman (74 percent female audience); a black church outreach campaign helped produce The Butler’s female-skewing $25 million weekend in 2013, according to Indiewire. “Rather than attempting to speak to and for everyone, gospel cinema is consciously crafted around the expectations and social practices of its primarily Black female audience,” Keith Corson wrote in From Madea to Media Mogul: Theorizing Tyler Perry this year. (CinemaScore does not track ethnic data, and comScore could not provide that information to Pacific Standard.)

Ultimately, the success of a film after it opens is dependent on audience reception, according to the University of California–Irvine researchers. “Film makers can position a movie to improve its chances of success, but after a movie opens the audience decides its fate,” they wrote. That women seem to be enjoying The Birth of a Nation—81 percent gave it a top grade (A) compared to 78 percent of men on CinemaScore—bodes well for the film going forward, and for ever-higher numbers of women attending, though the film hasbeencriticized for its portrayals of the rape of female slaves, which some writers have claimed serve only as catalysts for Turner’s revolt.

It’s certainly not new for women to identify with films the industry typically makes with male audiences in mind; researchers have noted that they are more interested in films targeted to the opposite sex than men are since the 1990s, which they have attributed, in part, to the relative dearth of movies starring and targeted at women. And women have driven the box office for movies starring accused sex offenders before: Take Woody Allen’s 2006 film Match Point and 2012’s A Dangerous Method, starring accused domestic abuser Michael Fassbender: Exit polls indicate that women constituted 56 percent and 59 percent of audiences for those films, respectively.

But at least this weekend, female filmgoers proved that they’re an even more potent box-office force when the film stars and is written by another woman, and not an accused sex offender: Raking in $24.7 million, and with a nearly 70 percent female audience to boot, the Emily Blunt-starring Girl on the Train won the weekend.