In a box office shocker, Clint Eastwood’s soldier drama American Sniper starring Bradley Cooper vaulted into nationwide release doubling expectations and shattering records in the process. Marketed and distributed brilliantly by Warner Bros., the R-rated pic soared to a towering $90.2M over the Friday-to-Sunday period, according to studio estimates, delivering a scorching $25,373 average from 3,555 locations including 332 venues with IMAX screens. These were summer numbers in January!
It was the largest opening weekend of all-time for the entire December through February winter period. This was never expected as Sniper debuted bigger than tentpoles like Avatar and every Hobbit film despite not having any 3D surcharges. Including three weeks of platform play, the cume stands at $93.6M.
To say this weekend gross is astonishing would be an understatement as most industry insiders were expecting a figure in the $40M range which itself would have been stellar. The all-time record for the biggest opening weekend during this month was Ride Along’s $41.5M a year ago. And the best overall weekend gross ever in January was $68.5M from Avatar in 2010 over the New Year’s holiday session Jan 1-3 in its third round. Sniper shot well ahead of both proving once again that for the right product, audiences will show up at any time of the year. The three-day figure even beat the $89.1M five-day debut weekend of the latest Hobbit film from last month.
The record weekend started with $30.5M on Friday including $5.3M from Thursday night pre-shows. Saturday climbed a healthy 14% to $34.7M while Sunday was estimated to drop by 28% to $25M. Sunday’s NFL conference championship games are expected to offer a distraction to the target audience. Warners is projecting a 40% drop on Monday to $15M for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. $9.5M of the three-day gross (11%) came from IMAX venues.
Many factors contributed to the sizzling hot performance. Certainly Eastwood has a loyal fan base and his Gran Torino bowed to $29.5M in January 2009 after its own successful platform run. Bradley Cooper provided on-screen starpower and was key in broadening the film’s appeal to women and younger adults. The 84-year-old double Oscar winner’s pics normally skew very old. The nationwide expansion was planned for one day after Academy Award nominations were to be announced and Sniper picked up six nods including Best Actor and Best Picture which just added to the must-see buzz. Warners did a masterful job executing the marketing especially with an assortment of truly effective and engaging TV spots. Reviews were mostly very good and the film tapped into American patriotism with a soldier’s true story, especially at a time when real-life news events were putting people on high alert.
Audiences polled by CinemaScore loved American Sniper as it earned a glowing A+ not just overall, but across all four quadrants. Studio data showed that males made up 57% of the crowd and 63% were over 25 which was a lower rate than Eastwood films normally see. Sniper also had the distinction of needing only two days of wide release to jump from being the lowest grossing Best Picture nominee this year to being the top one.
Among other records, American Sniper was the best career debut ever for both Eastwood and Cooper. Plus it came within a hair of becoming the biggest opening weekend of all-time for R-rated films. The Matrix Reloaded has held that mark for nearly 12 years and will keep the title with $91.8M after a Thursday launch in May 2003. Among dramas about the U.S. military which open in limited release in December for Oscar consideration and then expand nationwide in January, American Sniper’s opening wide weekend was as much as Lone Survivor, Zero Dark Thirty, and Black Hawk Down’s combined!
The road ahead is bright for Sniper which opened in the same range as some of last summer’s biggest tentpoles like Godzilla plus the Spider-Man and X-Men sequels. With Oscar buzz, audience praise, and mild competition, Eastwood’s smash hit will continue to shatter box office records in the days and weeks to come, probably crossing $200M.
Last year’s hottest comedy star Kevin Hart took second place with his latest offering The Wedding Ringer which debuted well to an estimated $21M from 3,003 locations for a strong $6,993 average. It was the widest debut ever in a lead role for the funnyman but still came in below the debuts of his three hits from last year including Ride Along which bowed on top this same weekend with double the numbers at $41.5M. Unlike those other films, the R-rated Ringer did not feature any big names as co-stars. Budgeted at just $23M, The Wedding Ringer should go on to be a moneymaker thanks in part to Hart’s star wattage and dedicated promotional push on the campaign trail. Audiences liked what they got as the CinemaScore grade was a good A-.
The kidpic Paddington got off to a good start with families opening in third with an estimated $19.3M over the Friday-to-Sunday period. Averaging a respectable $5,839 from 3,303 locations, the PG-rated comedy fared very well with critics and audiences alike earning solid reviews plus an A grade from CinemaScore. A lack of options for younger children helped as did a school holiday weekend. Paddington’s debut was almost identical to the animated film The Nut Job’s from this same weekend last year.
Liam Neeson got shoved aside by Sniper as his number one hit Taken 3 tumbled 64% in its second weekend from first to fourth place with an estimated $14.1M. The Fox hit has banked $62.8M to date. Paramount’s acclaimed Selma followed with an estimated $8.3M, off 27% in its second session of wide play. Despite rave reviews, an Oscar nod for Best Picture, and this being MLK weekend, the Oprah-backed film still is not bringing out large crowds and averaged a mild $3,714 for the frame. Cume is $26M which is below the $27.5M that the Jackie Robinson drama 42 grossed in just its first three days.
Another Best Picture contender followed, The Imitation Game with an estimated $7.2M remaining flat with last weekend. The Weinstein Co. has collected $50.8M to date. With its three Academy Award nods, Into The Woods took in an estimated $6.5M dropping 32% and lifting Disney’s total to $114.3M.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies fell 48% to an estimated $4.9M giving Warner Bros. $244.5M which is roughly equal to the cume that The Desolation of Smaug had at the same point last year after 33 days. Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken followed with an estimated $4.3M for Universal, off 47%, for a new sum of $108.6M.
Chris Hemsworth tried to become a solo action anchor but failed miserably with the cybercrime thriller Blackhat which was ignored by moviegoers. The R-rated pic debuted to just $4M, according to estimates, from 2,567 locations for a wimpy $1,558 average. Reviews were bad and the few who did come out and pay to see it also were disappointed as evidenced by its lousy C- CinemaScore. Luckily, Hemsworth will rebound in May when he joins his super hero pals in Avengers: Age of Ultron hoping to shatter records.
The top ten films grossed an estimated $179.7M which was up 22% from last year when Ride Along opened at number one with $41.5M; and up a stellar 67% from 2013 when Mama debuted on top with $28.4M.