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Hollywood is often accused of ignoring Middle America — but not in the case of Navy SEALs pic Lone Survivor.
Igniting moviegoers in the country’s heartland, Peter Berg‘s movie opened to a dazzling $38.5 million over the weekend, by far the biggest debut of any post-9/11 war film and the second-best nationwide launch of any January title after Cloverfield ($40.1 million). To boot, it nabbed a coveted A+ CinemaScore, guaranteeing strong word of mouth.
The patriotic-themed film, starring Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster, differs from many of the war movies set in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East by sticking to themes of courage, friendship and heroism while largely steering clear of politics and social issues.
Still, Universal was so skittish about making another war film that Lone Survivor had to find independent financing, with the studio later picking up distribution rights in the U.S. and select foreign territories. In 2010, the studio took a financial hit when Green Zone underperformed, while three years earlier, The Kingdom also proved a disappointment.
Envision Films put up much of the financing for Lone Survivor via producer Emmett/Furla Films.
Among other modern-day war pics, Zero Dark Thirty opened to $24.4 million last year on its way to earning a solid $132.6 million worldwide. Films that out-and-out bombed included Rendition and Stop-Loss. And while The Hurt Locker won the Oscar for best picture, it only earned $12.6 million in North America.
Marcus Luttrell, the former SEAL upon whose memoir the movie is based, is credited with playing a key role in Lone Survivor‘s success by tirelessly promoting the film.
Lone Survivor did extraordinarily well in more conservative states and in regions where there is a sizeable military presence, including Texas, Luttrell’s home state. Of the film’s 10 top-grossing theaters, seven were in Texas, a virtually unheard-of stat (theaters in Albuquerque, Washington, D.C., and San Diego — home of the SEALs — rounded out the list).
Texas, in addition to having Army and Air Force bases, is also a popular place for military retirees because of tax reasons. While in the service, any member of the armed forces can list their state of residence as Texas and avoid having to pay state taxes if they are stationed elsewhere. In return, may often retire there.
“It’s a great story about patriotism, survival and heroism, and incredible courage. It worked well everywhere, but Middle America really, really responded,” said Universal domestic marketing chief Nikki Rocco. “The publicity and marketing effort was amazing, including supporting Marcus in reaching out everywhere to tell his story. Pete and Mark were everywhere, too.”
The movie closest to Lone Survivor in tone, Act of Valor, also did well at the box office. Released by Relativity Media in 2012, Act of Valor — featuring real SEALs — debuted to $24.5 million on its way to earning $81.3 million globally.
The one place where Lone Survivor did decidedly soft business: Canada.
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