Though it had its theatrical premiere on Christmas 2014, Clint Eastwood's war drama American Sniper (read our review) didn't hit nationwide until this past Friday, January 16th. Based on the true story of late Iraq War veteran Chris Kyle, the film was expected to do very well at the box office this weekend, thanks to the presence of star Bradley Cooper, as well as the handful of Oscar nominations the film received last week (including Best Picture).
However, even the rosiest of optimists probably didn't see this coming. After scoring $30.5 million on Friday, Sniper is on track to earn $90.2 million in its first three days of expanded release. For the four-day weekend, it should pull in around $105 million, which is akin to the performance of a summer blockbuster. Eastwood's latest shattered the January opening weekend record, previously held by Ride Along, which grossed $48.6 million last year.
Early tracking indicated that Sniper would make something in the neighborhood of $40 million this weekend, but the high levels of interest helped it greatly surpass those expectations. In addition to the awards buzz it was riding, Kyle's story is something that was well-known to the general public. His book (on which the film's screenplay is based) was a New York Times bestseller for 37 weeks and became a "cultural phenomenon" in the words of Warner Bros. head of domestic distribution Dan Fellman. The movie had a lot going for it and it should have very strong legs throughout the month.
In the past couple of years, the war genre has seen tremendous success during this time frame. Last year, Lone Survivor grossed $125 million after going wide in January; and in 2013, the Best Picture nominated Zero Dark Thirty expanded and became commercially viable at $95.7 million. It's safe to say that American Sniper will blow those numbers out of the water, becoming an unprecedented case.
While Eastwood, Cooper, and WB executives are no doubt thrilled with the performance of the film, their friends at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are probably joining them in the celebration. In a stark contrast from previous years, 2014's Best Picture nominees did not post high numbers at the box office. When the nominations were announced on January 15, the eight films in the category had grossed a collective $203.1 million, which is the lowest total since the Best Picture field was expanded in 2009 to, ironically enough, invite more popular titles to the party.
That's not take anything away from acclaimed movies like Boyhood, Birdman, and The Grand Budapest Hotel (among others), who rightfully earned their places at the Oscars this year. However, the inclusion of a bona fide blockbuster like American Sniper should give the ceremony telecast a boost in the ratings, as the public now has a film they championed up for many of the major awards. Even if it's not the favorite, its many fans will still tune in to see if it can pull off an upset.
Perhaps this development will send a message to the studios and theater chains that control the level of distribution for these types of films. Out of all the Best Picture candidates, Sniper received the widest release by a large margin (3,555 theaters. Selma is second at 2,235 locations) and became a mainstream hit. Like they did in 2013, the moviegoing public said something with their wallets: put out acclaimed buzz-worthy movies across the nation, and they'll show up. The limited release model is out of date.
American Sniper is now playing in theaters.