‘American Sniper’: 5 Reasons for Historic Breakout at Box Office

Heartland heat, Oscar buzz and star Bradley Cooper give the Iraq War saga extra ammo

The electrifying $90.2 million wide opening of “American Sniper” – shattering records for the best January openings by tens of millions of dollars — stunned box office analysts and even distributor Warner Bros. Sunday.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” Dan Fellman, head of domestic distribution at Warner Bros. told TheWrap.

The Clint Eastwood-directed Iraq War saga starring Bradley Cooper was on pace to top $100 million over the four-day Martin Luther King holiday weekend, uncharted territory for a movie at this time of year. It was an explosive and historic start for Village Roadshow’s R-rated “American Sniper,” which was adapted by Jason Hall from the late U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s autobiography.

For the weekend, “American Sniper” was more than $60 million ahead of the runner-up movie, Kevin Hart’s “The Wedding Ringer.” The “Sniper” opening also doubled the $45.1 three-day January mark that Hart’s “Ride Along” set last year, and beat the four-day record of $68.5 million set by “Avatar” in 2010 by more than $20 million.

Here are the most significant factors behind “Sniper’s” box-office breakout:

Heartland Passion: You don’t run up numbers like “American Sniper” did without scoring broadly, but Middle America made a major difference.  “It played great everywhere, in the big cities and suburbs and red and blue states,” said Dan Fellman. “But if you look at the top 20 locales, you see places like Texas, Oklahoma, Albuquerque, which don’t normally turn out for R-rated films. It played like a superhero movie in places like Dallas, but this time the superhero was real, and that mattered.”

The Oscar Bump: It wasn’t just the fact that the film and its star Bradley Cooper captured Oscar nominations Thursday along with four others for the film, it was how they did it. Both the movie and actor were considered long shots for the nods just a month ago, and had to come from behind and knock out some heavyweight competition. That, along with the fact that the awards surprises came just one day before the nationwide rollout, amplified the Oscar buzz significantly.

The Stars Aligned: Cooper’s Best Actor nomination was his third in a row, following “American Hustle” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” and establishes him as one of Hollywood’s most-bankable stars. His current starring turn in “The Elephant Man”on Broadway has earned rave reviews, introduced him to new fans and didn’t hurt either. The iconic Eastwood still has a significant following too, despite recent stumbles like “Jersey Boys.” The veteran was the right choice to oversee the tale of a soldier coming home a changed man, and the tone he set for the emotional coming-home saga was spot on, and a big reason it clicked with film critics and received a rare “A+” CinemaScore from audiences.

The Big Picture: “American Sniper” got a huge boost from 335 Imax locations, which will account for 11 percent of its four-day haul at $11.5 million. That’s the biggest Imax opening ever for an R-rated movie, and the best MLK showing for any film as well. And the combined 348 Premium Large Format screens also delivered $9.8 million, or 11 percent of the three-day haul, led by Cinemark XD. Give credit to Warner Bros. and the giant screen company for seeing its potential and going all out on the launch of the film, which didn’t necessarily scream Imax the way an effects-laden action or superhero movie would.

Slow-Burn Rollout: Instead of a typical platform release, Warner Bros. opened it on Christmas Day in four high-end theaters: Union Square and Lincoln Square in New York, the Cinerama Dome in L.A. and Northpark in Dallas where Kyle lived. Then, rather than expanding it gradually, the studio kept the film in just those sites for the next three weeks. “We’d had success with platform releases on Clint’s films like ‘Mystic River’ and ‘Million Dollar Baby,’” Fellman said. “But we wanted to create something unique in the marketplace. We were doing a week’s worth of business every day, which made it tough for people to get in and see it, and that created buzz and a lot of positive conversation.”