Box Office: 'American Sniper' Makes History With Massive $105.3M Debut

American Sniper - H 2014
Keith Bernstein

American Sniper - H 2014

Shattering all expectations, Clint Eastwood's movie nabs the top opening of all time for a non-franchise Hollywood title; it is also a winner overseas despite its decidedly pro-American slant.

Clint Eastwood's American Sniper opened to a historic $105.3 million over the long Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in North America, shattering numerous records, boosting its Oscar profile and forever changing the way Hollywood studios view the sleepy month of January.

American Sniper marks the biggest launch ever for a non-tentpole Hollywood title, as well as for a movie opening in January — much less an R-rated modern-day war film (the previous best for a drama was The Passion of the Christ with $83.8 million). And the film's three-day haul of $89.5 million marks the No. 2 debut for an R-rated film after The Matrix: Reloaded ($91.8 million), not accounting for inflation.

The movie, starring Bradley Cooper as real-life Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, benefited from a massive turnout in America's heartland. It also recorded the biggest Oscar bump of all time after landing six nominations Feb. 15, including best picture and best actor.

Just as impressive, American Sniper is posting strong numbers overseas, despite its pro-American military theme, earning $25.4 million to date for an early worldwide cume of $134.1 million.

"It is a cultural phenomenon and a perfect storm," said Warners domestic distribution chief Dan Fellman. "If you would have told me we'd do these numbers, I would have replied that you were smoking something. This is the first 'real' superhero movie. It performed well in every market, from the smallest town to the biggest cities."

Earning a coveted A+ CinemaScore in every category, Sniper galvanized moviegoers in both red states and blue states. Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow partnered on the $60 million film, which, heading into the weekend, was expected to open in the $45 million to $50 million range as it unfurled nationwide in 3,555 theaters after a limited run over Christmas in Los Angeles, New York and Dallas (Kyle was from Texas).

All in, Sniper has grossed $108.7 million to date domestically, already eclipsing the $95.7 million grossed by Zero Dark Thirty in its entire run domestically and boosting its Oscar proflle.

Gran Torino ($29.5 million) was previously Eastwood's top opening as a director, while Kevin Hart's Ride Along, released a year ago on the same weekend, boasts the top opening for January with a three-day debut of $41.5 million. Its four-day take was $48.6 million.

Once again taking advantage of the MLK holiday, Hart returned to theaters this weekend in The Wedding Ringer, from Screen Gems.

Wedding Ringer — whose earnings were no doubt depressed by American Sniper — posted a three-day gross of $20.6 million million from 3,003 theaters and a four-day debut of $24.5 million, the top showing of all time for an R-rated comedy opening in January.

Still, Wedding Ringer didn't match the $27.8 million debut of Hart's About Last Night over Valentine's Day and Presidents Day weekend in February 2014. That movie was likewise rated R, while Ride Along was rated PG-13. Hart stars opposite Josh Gad in Wedding Ringer, which earned a promising A- CinemaScore and cost a modest $23 million to make.

"To do this kind of business in the face of American Sniper was a triumph," said Sony worldwide president of distribution Rory Bruer. "And the uptick we saw from Friday to Saturday night bodes well for the future of our movie."

For the long holiday weekend, Wedding Ringer lost the No. 2 spot to family film Paddington, based on the iconic British bear. Paddington, playing in 3,303 theaters, earned $19 million for the three days and $25.2 million for the four days, a victory for The Weinstein Co.'s newly reconfigured TWC-Dimension label, home of more commercially minded fare.

Earning an A CinemaScore in the U.S., Paddington is already well into its run overseas, where it has earned an outstanding $135 million to date for a world total of $160.2 million.

"We like to say Paddington roared. It was only supposed to come out in the high teens," said TWC's Erik Lomis. "This is a great reception for this character in the U.S., and it is playing through the roof in Middle America."

American Sniper was among a number of awards contenders looking for a box-office boost after landing an Oscar nomination for best picture, the most coveted category.

That includes Ava DuVernay's Selma, which took in $11.5 million over the long MLK holiday to place No. 5 in its second weekend in wide release (Taken 3 placed No. 4) for a domestic total of $28.5 million. Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment and Oprah Winfrey produced Selma, starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King. Jr. Paramount is distributing the critically acclaimed film in North America.

Nabbing eight Oscar nominations, TWC's The Imitation Game saw big gains, landing at No. 7 after holdover Into the Woods with a four-day haul of $8.1 million for a stellar domestic total of $51.7 million and worldwide total north of $100 million. Black Bear Pictures produced the biopic, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. The Weinstein Co. is handling Imitation Game domestically, while FilmNation has overseas duties.

Other best-picture contenders — including Birdman, The Theory of Everything and Whiplash — stand to benefit less, since they are further into their runs. Still, they can count on boosting their grosses to some degree

And, on the heels of Julianne Moore's win at the Golden Globes for Still Alice and an Oscar nomination for best actress, Sony Pictures Classics opened the Alzheimer's drama this weekend in 12 theaters in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Facing plenty of competition for adult eyeballs, the drama opened to a pleasing $226,853 over the four-day weekend for a theater average of $19,738. Including qualifying runs over Christmas, Still Alice has earned a total of $306,753.

To be sure, MLK weekend was prosperous for any number of films, but it also brought the first bomb of 2015 — director Michael Mann's big-budget action-thriller Blackhat, about a cyberattack on worldwide banking systems that the U.S. and China try to stop.

Despite its topicality in light of the hacking of Sony (reportedly by North Korea) and the star power of Chris Hemsworth, Blackhat fell outside of the top 10 with a four-day debut of $4.4 million (it placed No. 11). The action thriller, earning a dismal  C- CinemaSocre, is a major stumble considering its $70 million production budget. Universal is distributing Blackhat for Legendary per their partnership. Tang Wei, Viola Davis, Holt McCallany and Wang Leehom also star. Overseas, it did even worse, earning only $2.2 million.

Another new offering over the holiday was George Lopez-starred Spare Parts, although the drama only rolled out in 440 locations, earning $1.7 million for Lionsgate and Pantelion Films.