Why ‘American Sniper’ Is Doing Better Overseas Than Previous Middle East War Movies

Timing, stars and nuanced campaigns help Clint Eastwood-Bradley Cooper drama start fast abroad for Warner Bros.

The Clint Eastwood-directed Iraq War saga “American Sniper” is off to a strong start at the overseas box office, having taken in more than $26 million in two weeks.

The international launch of the Bradley Cooper drama is particularly impressive, given how tough it has been for modern movies that deal with Americans at war in the Middle East to connect abroad.

To put that in perspective, “American Sniper” has already taken in more than the $24.2 million that last year’s Afghan War drama “Lone Survivor,” a breakout hit domestically, managed over its entire foreign run.

Two weeks in, “American Sniper” is not far behind the $37 million international haul that “Zero Dark Thirty,” another Best Picture Oscar contender about the Iraq War, managed in 2012. And it’s even closer to the $32 million rung up overseas by “The Hurt Locker,” the 2009 Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards.

So what’s the difference? Here are some factors that are contributing:

Allies, for openers: It may have been a fortunate coincidence, but nearly all of the nations in which “American Sniper” has opened are close allies of the United States, including the U.K., New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan. The equation will change this weekend, when it opens in several Middle East countries, including Israel, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. Those will be trickier markets to be sure, but they’re small, and scoring in the larger markets and establishing momentum with a fast start was more important.

Passage of Time: In the years since the Middle East conflicts were at their deadliest, Americans have grown less emotional about their views toward them. That makes moviegoers more likely to watch a compelling story set against that backdrop, regardless of their politics. The same dynamic applies to foreign markets, regardless of how they feel about America’s role in the conflicts.

Clint Clout: The highest-grossing foreign territory by far to this point is Italy, where “American Sniper” has taken in $19 million and delivered the biggest opening ever for Eastwood there. It’s been 50 years, but he’s still beloved by many film fans there. Many remember the 1960s “spaghetti Westerns” of Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone like “A Fistful of Dollars,” which helped make Eastwood a force at the European box office. We’ll have a better handle on how far across Europe that goodwill extends next month, when it opens in France, Spain and Germany.

And Cooper Clout: The three-time Best Actor nominee has his own global following, having starred in the “Hangover” movies as well as “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle.” It’s a younger fan base than Eastwood’s, which provides a nice one-two punch for “Sniper.”

Emotional Message: “American Sniper” focuses on the return of Cooper’s character to his family as much as it does combat, while the earlier films dealt primarily with the fighting. Warner Bros. designed its overseas promo campaigns to play up the film’s emotional elements, which gives it a broader appeal while at the same time minimizing the potential political or nationalistic backlash.