'American Sniper': The Strategy Behind Warner Bros.' $107M Opening

Box Office Bullseye Illo - P 2015
iStock; Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Box Office Bullseye Illo - P 2015

Clint Eastwood's film scores big thanks to military outreach, Oscar pedigree and a big dose of carefully-managed controversy.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Warner Bros. domestic distribution chief Dan Fellman can't count the number of times he has called Clint Eastwood over the years to relay opening-weekend box office. But never had he phoned with news like this: American Sniper was exploding. It was Saturday morning, Jan. 17, and Fellman informed the 84-year-old filmmaker, who lives in Carmel, Calif., and doesn't use email, that Sniper looked to cross $80 million over the four-day weekend. Fellman wasn't planning on calling Eastwood again until Monday — but by late Saturday, it became clear that the $60 million-budgeted Sniper was surging to a historic $107.2 million North American launch. So he called again: "I've never seen anything like this in my career," he told Eastwood.

American Sniper's performance is a seminal event for Hollywood. Not only has the adaptation of the late Navy SEAL sharpshooter Chris Kyle's memoir energized Middle America, it also is resonating with more upscale, liberal audiences after landing six Oscar nominations, including best picture and best actor for Bradley Cooper. Sniper recorded the top opening of all time for a non-tentpole, eclipsing the $83.8 million debut of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. And heated political debate around the film (Michael Moore suggested it is pro-war and that snipers are cowards; Sarah Palin thanked Eastwood and Cooper and lashed out at "Hollywood leftists" criticizing the film) has made it the talk of cable news and social media.

Even the most cynical pundits credit Warners with orchestrating a shrewd marketing campaign that played on patriotism and heroism without alienating moviegoers less prone to flag-waving. They also applaud pairing Eastwood with Cooper. Steven Spielberg, closely aligned with the Democratic Party, originally was set to direct the movie but dropped out. Eastwood is a favorite among conservatives, particularly after his appearance at the 2012 Republican National Convention and his "empty chair" debate with an imaginary President Obama. "People trust Bradley Cooper, and the combination of him and Clint Eastwood really helped. Plus, Oscar nominations were a huge validation," says box-office analyst Phil Contrino. He and others likewise praise Warners for opening Sniper in select cities over Christmas, the traditional release for sophisticated awards fare, before expanding nationwide the day after Oscar noms were announced. Sniper did strong business in New York, Los Angeles and Dallas during its limited run, posting some of the best per-theater averages of all time.

All the while, Warners aggressively courted members of the military and veterans groups, hiring Glover Park Group, a leading Washington-based consulting firm. Most modern war films, from Green Zone to Zero Dark Thirty, have ignited potentially damaging debate about U.S. policies before their openings, but not Sniper (only with its phenomenal launch has such debate begun). "This is the first contemporary mainstream war film that really tells a personal story about soldiers. It is very unusual," says Sue Kroll, president of worldwide marketing and international distribution at Warners. Oscar winner The Hurt Locker likewise focused on the personal, but the indie film, released in June 2009, never was seen by the masses and topped out at $17 million domestic.

There are at least 22 million veterans in the U.S. and more than 1.5 million active-duty members of the armed forces. Add family members, and those numbers grow exponentially. Just before Thanksgiving, Warners and Glover Park began screening Sniper for leading veterans groups. The support was immediate, sparking glowing press within the military community. "About 2.8 million men and women have served in the post-9/11 wars, yet there is still a clear military-civilian divide in this country," says Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "But director Clint Eastwood — an Army veteran himself who used the GI Bill to go to college — got it right." The film was screened at 20 military bases, and on Dec. 19, Cooper and co-star Sienna Miller sat for a Q&A at the Fort Hamilton Army Base Theater in Brooklyn, followed by another Jan. 14 at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. "If, because of this movie, people are talking about veterans and what they've sacrificed, that's a victory," says Greg Silverman, Warners president of creative development and worldwide production, who immigrated from South Africa as a child and says he has an affinity for those serving in the U.S. military.

Many veterans live in the Southeast, Midwest and South, where Sniper did huge business, from the smallest towns — unusual for an R-rated film — to bigger cities. Bucking the normal pattern, top theaters included sites in San Antonio, Moore, Okla., Richmond, Texas, and Albuquerque, N.M. Compared with the norm, Sniper underindexed in L.A. (where it already had opened), as well as in San Francisco, Oregon and Canada. Other especially strong markets were North Carolina and San Diego, both of which have a big military presence.

A key indication that active-duty military turned out: 37 percent of ticket buyers were under age 25, an unusually high ratio for an R-rated adult drama. "It's mind-boggling the way it has played," says Fellman, adding that he received a call from Regal Entertainment president and COO Greg Dunn, whose Knoxville, Tenn.-based chain has a major presence in small towns in Middle America. "They've never seen such fantastic grosses. There are people going to see Sniper who haven't been to the movies in two or three years." Cooper, star of The Hangover films, is another draw for young people.

Many are estimating Sniper will gross $250 million or more domestically and another $125 million overseas, where the American story faces inherent challenges. Sniper already has grossed nearly $20 million in Italy, where Eastwood is beloved.

In addition to possibly boosting ratings for the Feb. 22 Oscar telecast (Sniper already has grossed more than the other best picture nominees), the film is poised to ride the controversy. "With the success of the movie and with such an emotional subject matter, everyone will have an opinion," says Kroll. "This is based on a man's life; we are not making a political statement."