Box Office: How 'American Sniper' Played Like a Superhero Movie

Anatomy of American Sniper BTS - H 2015
Keith Bernstein

Anatomy of American Sniper BTS - H 2015

From the smallest towns in Middle America to the most liberal cities, the Oscar-nominated film galvanizes moviegoers everywhere.

Call it Hollywood's first superhero movie based on a real person.

Fueled by patriotism and six Oscar nominations, Clint Eastwood's American Sniper is headed for a $105.2 million debut over the long Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend — the top opening ever for a non-tentpole and the biggest winter opening of all time. It's also the top four-day debut for an R-rated title.

So how did Sniper accomplish this unexpected feat and smash numerous records? It literally played like a superhero title, or other big franchise installment, doing huge business everywhere, from the smallest towns in America's heartland to more liberal cities on either coast.

Another indication that it is performing like a superhero movie: It racked up $11.5 million in 332 Imax theaters, a favorite venue for fanboys. That's the best opening ever for an R-rated title, and the top MLK gross of all time for Imax.

Middle America turned out in force to see American Sniper, starring Bradley Cooper as the late Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who did numerous tours of duty in Iraq and is credited with being the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history. Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow partnered on the $60 million film.

Sniper's top-grossing theaters were in San Antonio (Kyle was from Texas), Oklahoma City, Houston, New York, Albuquerque, Nashille, Knoxville, Kansas City and Irvine, Calif. Regionally, Calif. ranked No. 1, followed by Texas, Ga. and Fla.

"It shows the depth of the movie. It is playing in both red states and blue states," said Warners domestic distribution chief Dan Fellman. "It's the biggest opening of all time for a war film, but people don't view it as a war film. It is about a true hero, and family and patriotism. It doesn't matter that the movie is R-rated, which is sometimes a problem in smaller towns. This is the first 'real' superhero movie."

Adds one rival executive, "These number are fantastic. With all that's going on in the world, this movie is about a true hero. And Clint is an American icon, while Bradley's star status is peaking."

Modern-day war movies, often sparking partisan debate, have a decidedly mixed track record. That's not the case with American Sniper, which has been heavily promoted by Fox News Channel and has already earned more than Zero Dark Thirty did in its entire run domestically, or $95.7 million.

American Sniper arguably boasts the biggest post-Oscar nominations bump in history. And, considering its broad appeal and blockbuster status, it should help boost ratings for the Academy Awards ceremony on Feb. 22.