Why did ‘American Sniper’ do so well at the box office?

‘American Sniper’ had the largest opening ever for the month of January, with a box office take of an estimated $105 million over four days this weekend.

"American Sniper," the true story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, shattered expectations with a box office take of an estimated $105 million over four days this weekend – way beyond director Clint Eastwood’s previous best of $29 million for “Gran Torino.”

It’s the largest opening ever for the month of January, with a haul closer to summer blockbuster figures.

"It feels like summer in January. No one saw this coming,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst for Rentrak, a global media tracking firm based in Portland, Ore.

So why did the movie do so well?

With global politics such as they are, there is keen interest in a true story of human pathos within the framework of a military story.

“[P]eople are afraid of the continuing wave of terrorist attacks, and they're looking for heroes,” says Wheeler Winston Dixon, co-editor of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “ ‘American Sniper’ is a really interesting film because it shows both the horror of war, and also depicts the toll that this conflict takes on the soldiers who fight in it,” says Mr. Dixon, who made his comments via e-mail.

Last Thursday, the film was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor. The timing of the wide release of the movie the day after the announcements set it up perfectly for a much better-than-expected weekend.

“ ‘Sniper’ in one weekend of wide release easily becomes the highest-grossing film of the eight nominated for Best Picture and raises the box office average for the group in a major way," Mr. Dergarabedian says.

He and others tick off several reasons, in addition to timing of the Oscar nominations, for the box office success of “American Sniper.” The Best Actor nominee, Bradley Cooper, has been on a roll after a slew of popular movies, from “Wedding Crashers” (2005) to “The Hangover” trilogy (2009-2013). And he received Oscar nominations for his roles in the romantic comedy “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012) and the crime drama “American Hustle” (2013).

Marketing has also been a factor in the success of “American Sniper.”

Warner Bros. “mounted a relentless and effective marketing campaign that perfectly capitalized on the film's themes and performances,” Dergarabedian says. He also notes that the studio limited “ the availability of the movie for the first three weekends, [which] built up a demand.”

Still, the movie has ignited controversy, with some objecting to what they see as a glorification of death and war.

Filmmaker Michael Moore, an Oscar voter and former Academy Awards governor for the documentary branch, tweeted on Sunday, “My uncle killed by sniper in WW2. We were taught snipers were cowards. Will shoot u in the back. Snipers aren’t heroes. And invaders r worse.”

And in a piece in Britain’s “The Guardian,” Lindy West criticized Mr. Kyle this way: “The real American Sniper was a hate-filled killer. Why are simplistic patriots treating him as a hero?”

Dixon sees it differently, saying, “far from being escapist, ‘American Sniper’ engages in the heat of the moment.” Mr. Eastwood “has his pulse on what American audiences want to see right now.” 

 Staff writer Gloria Goodale contributed to this report.

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