American Sniper was destined to be a hit. The movie has an A-list director, an A-list star, and tells a complex story about a decorated veteran widely regarded as a hero by many Americans. But the extent to which Clint Eastwood’s film about the life of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (with Bradley Cooper in the title role as the purported most lethal sniper in U.S. military history) would connect with audiences is downright unprecedented.
Films released in January are done so with low expectations. This month, with Oscar-bait films still in theaters, is when distributors typically dump their garbage. If a movie has a relatively strong cast and a director with some cachet—i.e., Michael Mann’s Blackhat, released last weekend—the odds are good that the movie itself is semi-coherent nonsense. The occasional comedy can become a modest hit in January, but if a movie is expected to perform well, it usually gets released before the holidays.
American Sniper, however, isn’t just outperforming the typical January release—it’s slaughtering the previous record-holder (Kevin Hart and Ice Cube’s Ride Along). According to the indispensible BoxOfficeMojo.com, American Sniper grossed a staggering $89.5 million in its wide release this weekend, more than doubling the $41.5 million take by Ride Along. That’s more along the lines of what a summer superhero blockbuster like Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Guardians of the Galaxy takes in (both films were in the neighborhood of $95 million), which is completely unheard of for a January-released drama film. Indeed, American Sniper exceeds even the highest opening weekend take of a December release, when studios are pushing out both typical Oscar fare and the occasional prestige blockbuster, like the December recordholder, The Hobbit ($84.6 million). (And Sniper’s take from the four-day Martin Luther King holiday weekend, was a staggering $107 million, according to BoxOfficeMojo.)
So what makes American Sniper so successful? It’s tough to say, but the Oscar nominations can’t hurt. The most obvious comparison to Sniper is 2013’s Lone Survivor, which also told the story of a decorated war veteran and Navy SEAL from Texas who was portrayed by an A-list star, with Mark Wahlberg as Marcus Luttrell, and directed by Friday Night Lights creator Peter Berg. But Lone Survivor only took in $37.8 million in its opening weekend (good for fifth on the all-time list for January releases, but also more than $50 million less than Sniper).
Lone Survivor was ignored during the awards season, however, while American Sniper—which received no nominations at the Golden Globes, usually a reliable indicator of Oscar-worthiness—received six nods from the Academy, including in heavyweight categories like Best Picture and Best Actor. In other words, people who might have been interested in Lone Survivor, but who lacked the push out the door that comes with seeing a Best Picture nominee before the Oscars, seem to have flocked to the theater in droves for American Sniper.
An Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, in other words, appears to be an important kind of validation for a picture like American Sniper. Audiences attracted to military themes and fans of Chris Kyle’s (like those who helped stretch his funeral procession for 200 miles) probably would have guaranteed a box office take along the lines of Lone Survivor; but with the Oscar nods, the movie is in Captain America territory.
Of course, there are also those who don’t agree with the lionization of Kyle. Seth Rogen is the public face of that criticism today, after a tweet in which he compared American Sniper to the (fictional) Nazi propaganda film Hitler watches in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.
Country music stars, C-list actors, and former Vice Presidential nominees expressed their distaste for Rogen’s tweet, and the actor subsequently walked it back with further tweets, accusing the media of drumming up the controversy by reporting on the things he chose to put into the world.
In any case, it doesn’t really matter what Seth Rogen—or anyone else—thinks of American Sniper. The film’s opening-weekend take suggests that the majority of the January-movie-going public disagrees with Rogen’s assessment.