Emily Blunt Citizenship Flap Doesn’t Slow Explosive ‘Sicario’ Debut

Lionsgate preps Oscar push and sequel after drug-war thriller posts 2015’s top limited opening

The controversy swirling around “Sicario” star Emily Blunt and her American loyalties certainly didn’t hurt the drug-war thriller at the box office this weekend, where it posted the year’s best limited opening with an impressive $66,681 average in six theaters.

Blunt’s acclaimed “Sicario” performance was pushed into the background last week when the British actress had to apologize after joking that her new U.S. citizenship — the result of her marriage to actor John Krasinski — was “a terrible mistake” after she watched the recent GOP debate.

It’s possible the media fire helped raise awareness of “Sicario,” which stars Blunt as an FBI agent who teams with a shadowy government operatives played by Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro to take down Mexican drug cartels.

But Lionsgate Motion Picture Group Co-Chairman Patrick Wachsberger told TheWrap he didn’t think the controversy had any effect, positive or negative.

Blunt’s performance has placed her in the awards discussion since “Sicario” premiered in May at the Cannes Film Festival, but Wachsberger said the studio would be mounting an Oscar campaign for the film and its director, the cast, cinematographer Richard Deakins and film editor Joe Walker as well.

In addition, Lionsgate is exploring the idea of a sequel focusing on the background of del Toro’s character, the hitman (“sicario” in Spanish) of the title.

The gender split of the opening weekend was nearly even, surprising for a violent R-rated action film, and Wachsberger said the studio would try to broaden its appeal by tweaking the marketing campaign to draw more women.

“There are not that many strong roles for actresses in movies like this,” Wachsberger said. “When women become aware that the protagonist is female and how special this performance is, they’ll want to see it.”

“Sicario” appears to have the potential to be a significant financial score for the studio. The gritty $30 million border saga was financed by Black Label Media, which co-produced with Thunder Road Pictures, whose Basil Iwanyk produced with Molly Smith, Trent Luckinbill and Thad Luckinbill.

Wachsberger also dismissed earlier comments attributed to director Denis Villenueve suggesting the film’s backers had pressured him to cast a man in the role played by Blunt.

“Without Emily, there is no movie,” Wachsberger told TheWrap. “Her career has been very much on the rise and I think this role will take it to another level.”

The international nature of the production may be key to its potential appeal, particularly in foreign markets. Blunt is British, Villeneuve is from Quebec and Del Toro is Puerto Rican. Besides Cannes and Toronto, where “Sicario” was heartily embraced by critics, it was shown at the San Sebastian Film Festival.

“The reaction from Spain, and really from all over Europe has been very strong,” he said. That’s important, since Lionsgate is distributing “Sicario” overseas as well as domestically. The foreign rollout will begin soon after it goes wide in North America on Oct. 2.

This weekend, the film will expand from New York and Los Angeles to roughly 60 theaters in 11 markets. The reviews have been very good and “Sicario” is at 89 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes.

“It’s not just that they’ve been positive, it’s that when you read them you sense that the critics are legitimately excited about this movie,” he said, “and honestly, we are too.”