‘American Sniper’ Gets a Hero’s Welcome
Resonating With People in Smaller Cities, Military Film Has Huge $105.3 Million Debut Weekend
By Ben Fritz and Dan Molinski in the Wall Street Journal
Steve Smith, an Army veteran and schoolteacher, walked out of a movie theater in Plano, Texas, on Saturday with tears in his eyes. After years of movie studios getting the military experience wrong with films like “The Hurt Locker,” the 33-year-old said, “American Sniper” had nailed it.
Based on the memoir of Chris Kyle, reputed to be the deadliest sniper in the American military during the Iraq war, “American Sniper” opened to a phenomenal $105.3 million in the U.S. and Canada over the four-day holiday weekend, according to an estimate from distributor Warner Bros., owned by Time Warner Inc.
Its success was driven in large part by moviegoers like Mr. Smith who live in smaller cities and don’t regularly go to the multiplex.
“Chris Kyle was a fellow veteran, a fellow Texan. He’s very much a true legend,” Mr. Smith said while holding hands with his wife, Crystal. “So it was basically a foregone conclusion I’d be here as soon as it opened.”
Such a massive opening for a mid-budget drama was perhaps Hollywood’s biggest surprise since “Avengers” blew away box-office records by opening to $207 million in 2012. “Sniper,” directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper, enjoyed the largest opening ever for a drama or R-rated film and more than doubled the prior record for Martin Luther King Day weekend.
Its success is the strongest evidence yet that audiences including veterans and cultural conservatives who are more concentrated in the South and Midwest feel underserved by Hollywood and will turn out in droves for movies that are inspiring, patriotic and sincere. Comcast Corp.’s Universal Pictures also had surprising success last month with the historical military drama “Unbroken” and last year with the Afghan war movie “Lone Survivor.”
Eight of the top 10 markets for “American Sniper” were in the South or Midwest, including San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Houston, Nashville and Albuquerque. Typically, major cities like New York and Los Angeles dominate the top theater rankings for a successful film because they have larger concentrations of frequent moviegoers and higher ticket prices.
All five of the top theaters for “Lone Survivor” were in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, while “Unbroken” performed extremely well in small cities such as Mesa, Ariz., and Lehi, Utah. Meanwhile, all three movies underperformed in the Northeastern U.S. and Canada, compared with the norm.
“When the phone calls started coming in from exhibitors, I realized we had something special happening in the South and in small towns where our movies sometimes find it difficult to resonate,” said Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros.
“American Sniper” garnered better reviews than “Lone Survivor” or “Unbroken” and, unlike the latter two, received multiple Academy Award nominations, including for best picture—helping to ensure it performed well across the country and wasn’t exclusively a “red state” phenomenon.
To reach more conservative audiences, Warner Bros. advertised and arranged publicity on Fox News, military blogs, and in “Soldier of Fortune” magazine, along with more traditional outlets like NFL playoff games, said the studio’s president of world-wide marketing, Sue Kroll.
Particularly important, she said, were screenings that began before Thanksgiving for veterans’ groups and on military bases to build buzz that the movie wasn’t just good but also authentic. Mr. Kyle’s widow participated in publicity along with Mr. Cooper.
Opening-night audiences gave “Sniper” an average grade of A+, according to market-research firm CinemaScore. Out of 3,551 films the company has polled since 1986, only 59 have garnered an A+. One of the others was “Lone Survivor.”
“What these movies share is they’re utterly unironic,” said Michael Moses, Universal’s co-president of marketing. “They treat American values honorably.”
Produced for $59 million, “American Sniper” is sure to be hugely profitable for Warner and its financing partner Village Roadshow Pictures.
Though it has done solid business in the U.K. and Italy, the movie is unlikely to ultimately do as well overseas as it does domestically, given its focus on American patriotism.
Repeating the success of “American Sniper” won’t be as easy as pumping out “Iron Man” sequels. “This is a very specific film at a very specific point in time with all the right elements,” said Ms. Kroll. “It’s hard to say this is the kind of movie we make more of in the future.”
Two other films enjoyed solid openings, despite the domination of “Sniper. ”Weinstein Co.’s family comedy “Paddington” took in $25.2 million over the holiday weekend. The Kevin Hart comedy “Wedding Ringer,” from Sony Corp. ’s Sony Pictures, opened to $24.5 million.
“Blackhat,” a thriller financed by Legendary Pictures LLC and released by Universal, flopped with a dismal $4.4 million.