LOS ANGELES — Hollywood is prone to superlatives, but this one is truly jaw dropping: “American Sniper,” which arrived in wide release on Friday, is expected to sell about $105.2 million in tickets in North America over the four-day holiday weekend.
While America’s coastal intelligentsia busied itself with chatter over little-seen art dramas like “Boyhood” and “Birdman,” everyday Americans showed up en masse for a patriotic, pro-family picture that played more like a summer superhero blockbuster than an R-rated war drama with six Oscar nominations.
Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper, “American Sniper” joins another unexpected hit, Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken,” in turning out a conservative, heartland crowd that surprised Hollywood in its size. “Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico — all absolutely massive,” said Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution at Warner Bros., which released “American Sniper.”
But unlike “Unbroken,” Mr. Eastwood’s film has also been nominated for best picture at the Oscars. Until now, the best picture race, with small films like “Birdman” and “Boyhood” in the running, has been sorely missing a breakout hit — considered a crucial factor for the ratings success of the ceremony, which will be broadcast live on Feb. 22.
“American Sniper,” which received reviews that were strong but not euphoric, was adapted from a best-selling autobiography of the same name by Chris Kyle, a member of the Navy SEALs who was credited with enough confirmed kills in Iraq and Afghanistan to rank as the most deadly sniper in American history. Mr. Kyle was killed in 2013 at a Texas gun range by an emotionally troubled veteran he was trying to help.
“The previews looked really intense, and I was curious about it being a true story,” said Eric Davidson, 19, who saw the movie with two friends in Indianapolis on Friday. “I immediately recommended it on Twitter. Everyone’s talking about it.”
The film gave Hollywood its biggest January opening weekend ever. “Avatar,” which opened in December 2009, had the biggest previous January weekend take, $74.4 million in 2010, after adjusting for inflation. Mr. Eastwood’s film ranks as the largest R-rated release in history for Imax, where the film took in $11.5 million, beating the previous record-holder, “Prometheus.” Making “American Sniper” look even better: “Blackhat,” a cyberthriller from the director Michael Mann, bombed in its first weekend. “Blackhat,” which cost Legendary Entertainment an estimated $70 million to make and was released by Universal Pictures, is expected to take in $4.6 million over the four-day weekend, according to Rentrak, which compiles box office data.
Warner, which produced “American Sniper” with Village Roadshow for $58 million, initially planned to release the film next Christmas. Mr. Eastwood, 84, typically makes one film a year and his 2014 entry was “Jersey Boys,” which fizzled in July, taking in a total of $47 million.
But when Warner saw rough “American Sniper” footage last summer, it moved the film’s release to December 2014.
Still, the studio was already fully committed to the wide release of “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” and the overall Christmas box office was crowded with competing films; securing additional theatrical space for the wide-release of “American Sniper” would be difficult. So Warner decided to ease Mr. Eastwood’s film into the marketplace, releasing it in just four theaters on Dec. 25.
Ticket sales in that handful of theaters exceeded expectations, helping Warner to rally multiplex chains around the picture. “American Sniper” suddenly went from smaller auditoriums to the biggest bookings available. Imax came on board only 10 days ago, for instance. “The strong reaction to the limited, platform release helped us in a huge way,” Mr. Fellman said on Sunday.
So-called “sand movies,” the term Hollywood sometimes uses for films set in Afghanistan and Iraq, have a terrible box office track record. To overcome that stigma, “American Sniper” was positioned as equal parts war thriller (attracting men) and emotional family drama (luring women). In the end, the gender breakdown was relatively balanced: Warner said 57 percent of the weekend audience was male.
Warner also generated advance word-of-mouth with extensive military screenings and outreach to veterans. Over the weekend, “American Sniper” received a rare A-plus grade in exit polls conducted by CinemaScore. Twitter and Facebook lit up with comments from satisfied customers, driving more people to theaters.
The success demonstrates the way “social media buzz can push a movie really far, really fast,” said Phil Contrino, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com.
Martin Luther King’s Birthday weekend, however, also brought a reminder that social media attention does not always translate into ticket sales: “Selma,” another best picture nominee, was expected to take in a quiet $10.3 million over the four-day period — on par with “The Imitation Game,” also a best picture nominee that played in far fewer theaters. “Selma” on Thursday became the center of a heated conversation about a lack of racial diversity at the Oscars.
Among other new films, “The Wedding Ringer,” an R-rated comedy starring Kevin Hart, is expected to sell $25 million in tickets over the four-day weekend while the family film “Paddington” will arrive to more than $20 million.
An earlier version of this article erroneously attributed a distinction to “Avatar.” It held the record for the biggest box-office take for a January weekend, not for an opening on a January weekend.
A version of this article appeared in print on January 19, 2015, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: ‘Sniper’ Rules Weekend Box Office.
This article is courtesy of: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/19/movies/sniper-rules-weekend-box-office.html?ref=movies
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