Empty seats were hard to come by at Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, where the R-rated Iraq War drama — all words seldom attached to “blockbuster” — rolled to the kind of runaway success that makes Hollywood sit up and take notice.
The film, which blew away box-office expectations with a superhero-sized $107 million over the four-day weekend and went over $200 million by its second weekend, was in many ways an old-fashioned kind of Hollywood hit: It was built on star power (Bradley Cooper and Eastwood), Oscar buzz (six nominations, including Best Picture) and a largely adult audience (63 percent over 25 years old).
The success has made the latest film from the 84-year-old director — his second in half a year — a flashpoint in Hollywood, Washington, D.C., and everywhere in between, sweeping American Sniper into the culture wars Eastwood has sometimes engaged.
Certainly, the huge wide-release opening wouldn’t have been possible without the strong support of a seldom-catered-to demographic: conservatives. Dan Fellman, head of domestic distribution for Warner Bros., called conservatives’ embrace of the film “huge,” noting it’s an audience difficult to court.
“The audience watched this movie not as a war movie but as a movie about patriotism, a movie about a hero, a movie about family, a movie about serving our country,” said Fellman. “And it struck a chord right across the board.”
Most Hollywood heartland hits (like the recent Unbroken, or one of films American Sniper surpassed to become the biggest R-rated drama debut, The Last Temptation of the Christ) have capitalized on faith-based audiences. But American Sniper, about Navy SEAL marksman Chris Kyle, is the kind of heroic war film Hollywood has largely resisted in depicting the often unpopular and less successful campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gitesh Pandya, editor of BoxOfficeGuru.com, credited the film’s triumph to a “perfect storm” of factors, including the savvy marketing of Warner Bros., which stoked interest in the film by holding it in very limited release for two weeks.
“It was always expected to have a large conservative base come out for this film, as most military dramas do,” said Pandya. “But you can’t sell a movie to only a conservative audience and reach $107 million in a four-day weekend. You’re reaching everybody with those kind of numbers.”
Eastwood has held that American Sniper is an apolitical character study about Kyle, who with 160 confirmed kills, is considered the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history. He was tragically killed at a shooting range in 2013 by a veteran he was helping adjust to life at home.
But the celebration of an elite killer who called his Iraqi foes “savages” has spawned a growing storm of criticism. Seth Rogen compared the movie to Nazi propaganda before adding that he liked it on Twitter. Documentarian Michael Moore sparked more uproar when he tweeted unrelatedly about snipers not being heroes, before adding that he thought Eastwood confused Iraq for Vietnam.
In the New Republic, Dennis Jett wrote that single-mindedly treating Kyle as a patriot “allows Americans to ignore the consequences of invading a country that had no weapons of mass destruction, had nothing to do with 9/11, and had no meaningful ties to Al Qaeda.”
Nevertheless, American Sniper has become a bona fide cultural phenomenon.
As of mid-January, three American Sniper books were on Amazon.com’s bestseller list: a paperback of the original memoir; a tie-in release for which the cover is artwork from the film; and a hardcover “memorial” edition that includes tributes from friends and family members. (Both the original edition and the memorial edition are out of stock.)
The film will arrive at the Feb. 22 Academy Awards the far-and-away box-office heavyweight among the Best Picture nominees. (Second to American Sniper is The Grand Budapest Hotel, which made $59.1 million in its entire run.) And Eastwood’s film dramatically stole the thunder of Selma ($11.5 million in its second week of wide release) on the very memorial day of its protagonist, Martin Luther King Jr.
Not necessarily conservatives
Pandya said the resurgent audience driving American Sniper isn’t any one political group, but adults.
“Teens and young adults are abandoning the multiplexes in larger numbers,” said Pandya. “What you’re seeing is that older folks, mature adults, are making up a larger and larger percentage of the box office. If there are quality films aimed at that audience, they’re doing gangbusters left and right.”
Few expect the rise of American Sniper to push it to Oscar victory. But with box-office receipts heading to well over $200 million in North America, the effect of American Sniper will likely be — as all things successful in Hollywood are — endlessly copied.
Phil Contrino, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com, expects to see more war movies soon.
“When it was still very fresh, a lot of these movies weren’t performing very well,” says Phil Contrino, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “Now all of a sudden the war on terror has become commercially viable. Why is that? I guess time. If you look at Vietnam, Apocalypse Now is basically the first major successful movie about it, and that came quite a bit after it. I guess it just took time.”