How Mark Wahlberg's ‘Lone Survivor’ Red-White-and-Blew Away the Box Office (Video)

Universal's graphic Afghan war drama broke out after striking a patriotic chord with middle-America moviegoers

Marketing executives at Universal Pictures knew that their Afghan war drama “Lone Survivor” wasn't your typical action movie, and that selling it would require a unique approach that centered on its themes of real-life courage, heroism and patriotism.

Based on this weekend's stunning $38 million opening, they delivered, and America got the message.

With a major surge provided by Heartland moviegoers, the gritty and R-rated tale of a 2005 Navy SEAL mission gone awry blew away its rivals and the expectations of the studio and analysts. Most had projected an opening in the $18 million range for the film, which stars Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch, Eric Bana and Ben Foster.

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“I believe that a big part of its appeal was that this is not fiction,” said Chris Marvin, a former U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter pilot who fought in Afghanistan and heads Got Your Six, one of three veterans groups that will benefit from donations made in honor of the film.

“I think Peter Berg (who adapted and directed) did a great job of making this different than the typical action movie,” Marvin told TheWrap. “You very much got the sense that this was a real depiction of what these men and women did for us as Americans. Instead of all the explosions, car flips and pyrotechnics – which are usually the fun and entertaining stuff — this was more like a punch in the gut.”

It's a punch that most Americans need, Marvin believes.

Also read: ‘Lone Survivor': Box Office Mission Accomplished With Stunning $38M

“If civilians don't accept their civic obligation to know some history from our nation's longest conflict, then why did we send our young men and women into harm's way in the first place?” Marvin asked in a piece he wrote for Parade Magazine.

AFI FEST 2013 Presented By Audi Premiere Of "Lone Survivor" - ArrivalsMarvin's Got Your Six is one of three veterans groups that will benefit from donations to the Lone Survivor Fund, which was established years ago by Marcus Luttrell (center at left, with Berg and Wahlberg). He's the real-life “lone survivor” who, with Patrick Robinson, wrote the book upon which the film is based. Both Universal and online ticket broker Fandango endorsed the campaigns.

Universal didn't want to make seeing “Lone Survivor” seem like a duty, but didn't shy from appealing to potential moviegoers’ sense of patriotism.

After playing “Lone Survivor” in single theaters in New York and Los Angeles for two weeks to qualify for the Oscars, Universal went nationwide into 2,875 theaters, many of which were in the Heartland.

Also read:  ‘Lone Survivor’ Screening Scores on Strength of Mark Wahlberg, Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell

Universal wisely kept the focus on patriotism and friendship, rather than the politics or morality of the U.S. campaigns. Middle East war movies like “Green Zone,” “Lions For Lambs” and “Rendition” have struggled at the box office. Even 2009 Oscar Best Picture winner “The Hurt Locker” only grossed $17 million, so “Lone Survivor” is by far the most successful.

“It played extremely well in Middle America,” Universal's distribution chief Nikki Rocco said. “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. ”

That message resonated with both genders; the audiences was 43 percent women, high for an action movie.

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Wahlberg, who produced “Lone Survivor” with Berg and Sarah Aubrey, worked the late-night and talk show circuit tirelessly, and Berg was also front and center in the campaigns.

In addition to its own efforts, the studio got some help in promoting the film from the cable news channels and other outlets prior to its release. Luttrell was seemingly everywhere and more than once, commentators suggested that film offered the opportunity to “show support for our troops.”

Audiences gave “Lone Survivor” a rare “A+” CinemaScore. That suggests word-of-mouth will be very strong and the $40 million war drama will almost surely hit $100 million.