‘Lone Survivor': Box Office Mission Accomplished With Stunning $38M (Video)

Gritty tale of Afghan war heroism mobilizes the mainstream to blast past projections. “August Osage County” bests “Her”

“Lone Survivor,” a gritty tale of courage and honor among American fighting men, broke out with a stunning $38.5 million triumph at the U.S. box office this weekend.

The Afghan war drama starring Mark Wahlberg and Emile Hirsch more than doubled distributor Universal Pictures’ pre-release projections. The studio and most analysts had expected the searing and violent tale of a Navy SEAL mission gone awry to land in the high-teen millions over the three days. Instead, it posted the best opening ever on this weekend, and the second-highest January debut ever, behind only the $40 million opening of 2008's “Cloverfield.”

It was a hit with critics coming in, but the patriotic themes of “Lone Survivor” clearly struck an unexpectedly powerful chord with moviegoers, who turned out in large numbers and gave the film a rare “A+” CinemaScore.

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“Lone Survivor” dominated the weekend. The reigning No. 1 movie, Disney's animated family film “Frozen,” was a distant second with just over $15 million. The weekend's only wide opener, the sword-and-sandals adventure “The Legend of Hercules,” was bunched just behind that with holdovers “Wolf of Wall Street,” “American Hustle” and “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” all between $8 million and $9 million.

The Meryl Streep-Julia Roberts dysfunctional family comedy “August: Osage County” out-performed another expanding Oscar hopeful, Spike Jonze's computer love story “Her,” to finish seventh with $7.3 million. The Weinstein Company aggressively expanded it from five to 905 theaters; that's an impressive $8,083 per-screen average for Tracy Letts’ adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

“Her,” which features Joaquin Phoenix as a man who falls for his operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), expanded from 47 theaters to 1,729 and brought in $5.4 million. That's a so-so $3,129 per-screen average for the Warner Bros. film.

“Lone Survivor” was adapted and directed by Peter Berg and is based on the book of the same name by Marcus Luttrell, the film's namesake survivor, and Patrick Robinson. Taylor Kitsch, Eric Bana and Ben Foster co-star in the battle saga, which averaged an impressive $13,395 on its 2,875 theaters – more than three times better than any other movie.

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In addition to the major markets, Universal's marketing targeted the Heartland and military-friendly locales including San Diego, and it connected in a major way. With author Luttrell front and center, “Lone Survivor” and its theme of heroic service to the country also drew major attention on the news circuit in the run-up to its nationwide expansion, and that plainly helped.

“It played extremely well in Middle America,” Universal's distribution chief Nikki Rocco told The Wrap. “It's a sad and very tough story, but it also can make you very proud that we have these people representing our country, and I think the movie tapped into that. ”

She said the movie's strength with women – who represented 43 percent of the audience and gave it an “A+” CinemaScore — was surprising.

“It's graphic, there's no doubt about that,’ she said. “That it would score so well with them is amazing.”

The film's performance on premium large format screens, led by Cinemark, was also surprisingly strong and brought in 13 percent of the grosses.

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“Lone Survivor,” which has been playing Oscar-qualifying runs in New York and Los Angeles for the past two weekends, easily bested the mid-January expansions of two other war movies. Last year's “Zero Dark Thirty” came in at $24.4 million and 2001's “Black Hawk Down” opened wide with $28.6 million. And the big opening is a far cry from Berg and Kitsch's last military-themed outing for Universal, 2012's pricey domestic bomb “Battleship.”

“Lone Survivor” was financed by to the tune of $40 million by Emmett Furla, which produced the film along with Berg, Wahlberg and Sarah Aubrey.

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Summit's 3D “Hercules,” directed by Renny Harlin and starring “Twilight” alum Kellan Lutz, brought in $8.6 million from 2,104 locations. That's in line with the low expectations for the action adventure financed by Millennium Entertainment. Its audience, which was 57 percent male and 55 percent over the age of 25, gave it a “B-” CinemaScore.

It is the first of two movies about the ancient hero set for this year. Paramount and MGM's “Hercules: The Thracian Wars,” directed by Brett Ratner and starring Dwayne Johnson, will hit theaters in July.

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Disney's powerhouse “Frozen” continued its remarkable run. It's up to $317 million domestically after dropping just 23 percent from last week, and will top the $700 million mark worldwide Sunday.  The 53rd feature film from Walt Disney Animation Studios is now the fourth-highest grossing non-sequel animated film of all time.

Martin Scorsese's “Wolf of Wall Street,” which topped the box office from Tuesday to Thursday, took in $9 million from 2,521 theaters, off just 34 percent from last week. The R-rated black comedy starring Leonardo Di Caprio is showing staying power and is up to $78.5 million domestically in its third weekend for Paramount.

So is Sony's quirky David O. Russell con man comedy “American Hustle,” which brought in $8.6 million- just a 32 percent drop from last week – to lift its domestic total to $101.5 million after five weeks.

Warner Bros.’ blockbuster “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is still in 3,075 theaters and took in $8 million for sixth. Peter Jackson's Middle Earth tale has now topped $242 million domestically and is approaching $800 million worldwide in its fifth week.

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Disney's “Saving Mr. Banks” was eighth, after bringing in $6.5 million. The Tom Hanks-Emma Thompson drama about the making of “Mary Poppins,” is also in its fifth week, and is up to $64 million domestically.

Last weekend's No. 2 movie, the horror spin-off “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones,” took a 66 percent tumble from last week and brought in $6.3 million. It's at $28.4 million after two weeks for Paramount.

Another awards contender, CBS Films’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” also expanded, from 156 to 729 theaters. Ethan and Joel Coen's take on the 1961 Greenwich Village folk scene brought in $1.8 million for a $$2,573 per-screen average. It's up to $9.3 million domestically after six weeks in mainly limited release, topping the total of the Coens’ 2009 film “A Serious Man.”

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