Two years after Gone Girl gripped audiences, Tate Taylor's female-fueled The Girl on the Train opened to a solid $24.7 million from 3,133 theaters over the weekend, easily winning the North American box-office race ahead of Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation.
Sundance Film Festival darling Birth of a Nation debuted to a disappointing $7.1 million from 2,105 theaters, capping weeks of controversy over Parker's involvement in a 1999 rape trial. His slave-rebellion drama, placing No. 6, was always going to be a tough sell, but the imbroglio certainly complicated matters for Fox Searchlight. And the movie's muted opening could further damage the film's awards chances.
The overall box office took a small hit because of Hurricane Matthew, which slowed moviegoing in some parts of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. And Sunday night's second presidential debate, where Republican nominee Donald Trump is certain to be asked about lewd and sexual comments caught on a hot mic, could also slow theater attendance.
The female-fueled Girl on the Train, an adaptation of British author Paula Hawkins' hit novel and starring Emily Blunt, was produced by Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks for under $50 million and distributed by Universal. The story centers on a woman who thinks she witnesses a murder while riding on the train, but because of her troubled past and problems with alcohol, doesn't know if she can trust what she believes she's seen.
"This is a big moment for Emily Blunt, who absolutely carries this movie," said Universal domestic distribution chief Nick Carpou, noting that it also is a momentous start for the studio's new distribution and marketing partnership with Steven Spielberg's Amblin Partners, home of DreamWorks.
Overseas, Girl on the Train took in $16.5 million from its first markets, the majority of which are being handled by Mister Smith Entertainment, for a global bow of $41.2 million.
In North America, Taylor's film wasn't able to match the $37 million domestic debut of David Fincher's Gone Girl, also an adaptation of a best-selling psychological thriller. Gone Girl received far better reviews (and an 88 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes), while Girl on the Train was dismissed by many critics (it shows a 44 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes).
Still, the popularity of Hawkins' novel drove plenty of fans to see Girl on the Train. In terms of CinemaScores, Girl on the Train received a B-, while Gone Girl notched a B. Nearly 70 percent of ticket buyers were female, while 55 percent of the audience was over the age of 35.
Girl on the Train also stars Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Allison Janney, Edgar Ramirez and Lisa Kudrow, with Marc Platt and Jared LeBoff producing. The film, which cost under $50 million to make, has drawn somewhat mixed reviews, but the popularity of the book is delivering strong results.
Tim Burton's Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children placed No. 2 in its second weekend, falling 48 percent to $15 million for a domestic total of $51.1 million for Fox. The fantasy adventure won the overseas race, earning another $42.5 million from 71 markets for an early foreign total of $94 million and global cume of $145.1 million.
Pete Berg's Deepwater Horizon fell even less, or 42 percent, in its sophomore outing to $11.8 million for a North American total of $38.5 million for Lionsgate and Participant Media. The biographical disaster film, starring Mark Wahlberg, earned $10.6 million from 70 markets overseas for a foreign cume of $27.8 million and worldwide total of $46.3 million.
Sony's The Magnificent Seven rounded out the top five with $9.2 million in its third weekend for a domestic cume of $75.9 million and worldwide total of $135.4 million.
Birth of a Nation, Parker's directorial debut, ignited a fierce bidding war at the Sundance Film Festival in January, resulting in a record $17.5 million sale to Fox Searchlight. The period drama, centering on the Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831, seemed the ideal antidote to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and was widely viewed as an obvious Oscar contender.
But over the summer, Parker came under fire over a 1999 trial in which he and Jean Celestin, who later co-wrote Birth of a Nation, were accused of raping a classmate at Penn State University. Parker, who maintained the sex was consensual, was acquitted, while Celestin was convicted. (Celestin's case was overturned on appeal.) Just days after Parker made new comments about the incident in interviews, it was revealed that the accuser had committed suicide in 2012.
Parker's movie marks one of the widest releases ever for Searchlight, which generally opens its films - including the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave - in select theaters before expanding. Birth of a Nation, boasting strong reviews and an A CinemaScore, appealed heavily to African-American moviegoers (51 percent). The film skewed female, while as much as 80 percent of ticket buyers were over the age of 25.
"This is a satisfactory, not disappointing result," said Fox Searchlight distribution chief Frank Rodriquez. "And thanks to an A CinemaScore, we're expecting a decent hold."
Comps are difficult, since 12 Years a Slave rode an Oscar wave. This past summer, Free State of Jones, based on the true story of a soldier (played by Matthew McConaughey) who rebelled against the Confederacy and married a former slave, opened to $6.5 million from 2,815 theaters on its way to earning a dismal $20.8 million.
Birth of a Nation has yet to open overseas.
This weekend's third new nationwide offering was YA comedy Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, from CBS Films and Participant Media and distributed by Lionsgate. The movie debuted to $6.9 million from 2,822 theaters.
Middle School, based on the 2011 novel of the same name by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts, earned an A- CinemaScore. Directed by Steve Carr, the kid-friendly pic stars Griffin Gluck, Lauren Graham, Rob Riggle, Retta, Thomas Barbusca, Andy Daly and Adam Pally.
Oct. 9, 12:20 p.m. Updated with foreign numbers.