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Top Ten Takeaways: Blockbuster ‘American Sniper’ Boosts Box Office, How High Will It Go?

Top Ten Takeaways: Blockbuster 'American Sniper' Boosts Box Office, How High Will It Go?

Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” (Warner Bros.) made a staggering showing this weekend (see our in-depth analysis below). With the boost from “Sniper,” the three-day gross for the Martin Luther King birthday weekend (with one more strong day to come) set records for the holiday. Two other new openings showed some strength: “Wedding Ringer” (Sony) and “Paddington” (Weinstein). The third newbie, Michael mann’s cyber-hack thriller “Blackhat,” looks to be the year’s first big flop.

The Top Ten amassed jut under $180 million, 22% better than last year, and a record for the three days (previously $157 million in 2010). The post-Oscar nominations also contributed to the surge. But more than anything else, the spark came from a broad array of original films, not the same-old-same-old that often dominates new releases.

This massive weekend shares something in common with the unexpectedly strong Christmas Day releases: . no new film is a sequel or would-be franchise starter. Audiences clearly respond when studios provide original films not stuck in the same old ruts.

We will publish our detailed 2014 recap tomorrow (complete with rating all the wide releases), but one main takeaway is that which makes sense internationally — sticking with the tried and true — isn’t resonating so much domestically. Sure, sequels/franchise films remain most of the top draws, but they aren’t sustaining themselves. The dependence on them seems to be contributing to last year’s drop. It will take a while for production plans to adjust, but be sure people are taking note of these recent results.

The Top 10

1. American Sniper (Warner Bros.) Week 4 – Cinemascore: A+, Criticwire: B, Metacritic: 72; est. budget: $58 million
$90,205,000 (+15,465%) in 3,555 theaters (+3,551); PSA (per screen average); $: $25,374; Cumulative: $93,630,000
2. The Wedding Ringer (Sony) NEW – Cinemascore: A-; Criticwire: C+; Metacritic: 32; est. budget: $23 million
$21,000,000 in 3,003 theaters; PSA: $6,993; Cumulative: $21,000,000
3. Paddington (Weinstein) NEW – Cinemascore: A; Criticwire: A-; Metacritic: 77; est. budget: $50 million
$19,287,000 in 3,303 theaters; PSA: $5,839; Cumulative: $19,287,000
4. Taken 3 (20th Century Fox) Week 2 – Last weekend #1
$14,050,000 (-64%) in 3,594 theaters (unchanged); PSA: $3,909; Cumulative: $62,837,000
5. Selma (Paramount) Week 4 – Last weekend #2
$8,300,000 (-27%) in 2,235 theaters (+56); PSA: $3,714; Cumulative: $25,964,000
6. The Imitation Game (Weinstein) Week 8 – Last weekend #6
$7,192,000 (unchanged) in 1,611 theaters (+45); PSA: $4,464; Cumulative: $50,798,000
7. Into the Woods (Buena Vista) Week 4; Last weekend #3
$6,542,000 (-31%) in 2,758 theaters (-75); PSA: $2,372; Cumulative: $114,296,000
8. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Warner Bros.) Week 6; Last weekend #4
$4,860,000 (-48%) in 2,220 (-1,182) theaters; PSA: $2,189; Cumulative: $244,537,000
9. Unbroken (Universal) Week 4; Last weekend #5
$4,267,000 (-48%) in 2,602 theaters (-699); PSA: $1,640; Cumulative: $108,610,000
10.. Blackhat (Universal) NEW – Cinemascore: C-; Criticwire:; Metacritic:; est. budget: $70 million
$4,030,000 in 2,567 theaters; PSA: $1,570; Cumulative: $4,030,000

The Takeaways

American Sniper 1: There’s Something Happening Here

No need to list all the records “Sniper” set — monthly, adult drama, R-rated drama, Eastwood-directed (or even starring), even adjusted for inflation, it’s the real deal. Looking at the (unadjusted) opening weekend numbers, only “Alice in Wonderland” and “Godzilla” rank higher among the 40 biggest of all time as stand-alone films. And both were based on familiar characters in previously told stories. Among completely original films, only “The Passion of the Christ” (bigger since it opened on a Wednesday), “The Da Vinci Code,” “I Am Legend” and “Avatar” grossed over $75 million. And only one (“Christ”) was R-rated, and each came with more mainstream audience appeal and/or pre-sold elements. That’s how unique this is.

And no one in the industry can recall a film, at or near this level of performance, that so exceeded expectations. The hints were there — the huge limited platform runs that sustained themselves for three weeks, the big performance of the somewhat similar “Lone Survivor” a year ago, as well as consistently decent or better grosses for recent military-themed films like “Fury” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” But this opened in an extremely competitive period — it’s not like other studios got out of the way as they often do for highly anticipated new releases, thus enabling maximum seating and limiting alternatives.

And despite the clear initial high want-to-see revealed in the Thursday night/Friday take of $30.5 million, this went up 14% from the combined initial number, and just under 30% up from Friday, incredible considering how many sellouts it had already. That likely guarantees that this is heading toward a massive domestic take — with $300 million or even more possible. Next weekend will tell the story better, but whatever happens ahead, this is already a jaw-dropper.

American Sniper 2: What Isn’t Exactly Clear

As “Sniper” ignites some heated debate about what it all means, how did this happen? All hell is already breaking loose as people from different perspectives clamor to embrace it to enhance their agendas while others make simple-minded denunciations without really bothering to understand it.

Much of the social media reaction this weekend is devolving into an cliched red state/blue state divide that permeates so much of the national discussion today. One would think from some of the shocked response that Clint Eastwood has turned into the new “Duck Dynasty” with a Fox News following. That’s nonsense after his 40 years+ of directing movies which, like “Sniper,” often focus on men both attracted to and tragically affected by violence, the core of this film. Any viewing that doesn’t take away at least in part an anti-war message is missing the point. It doesn’t “condemn” American involvement in the Iraq war, but then did he “condemn” Japan when he showed their side in “Letters from Iwo Jima”? It is more a character study (and liberally adapted from the true story, which someone like Eastwood has earned the right to do), and that seems to be a core of its appeal.

It’s no surprise that the core of the appeal comes from Middle America, with particular strength in areas with a strong military presence. Why not? It’s about them. Warners reports that they have heard from theaters that in many cases veterans showed up in groups, in uniform. Attendees (and I’ve talked to several myself) report not so much a jingoistic, “rah-rah let’s kill the bad guys” response but rather (particularly by the end) a solemn, emotionally-wrenching reaction, with many men holding on to others for support and quietly sobbing. That’s not ideological – that’s emotional. And it isn’t limited to just one group — among viewers I’ve spoken to, certainly not in any red-state frame of mind, the reaction is similar.

This includes Academy members. The down-grading of the film’s importance started as it was thrown into the Oscar fray as Eastwood’s return to form after years of disappointments. It was clear from the start that he’d lost his cool cat club mojo (in no small part because of lingering negative reaction to his “empty chair” speech at the 2012 Republican convention). Somehow lost amid this is the fact that “Sniper”s reviews are exactly (per Metacritic scores) as strong as fellow Best Picture nominees “The Imitation Game” and “The Theory of Everything,” though lower than earlier Eastwood triumphs.

Since so much of the pre-wide release media discussion of “Sniper” has related to its awards chances, some people have fallen into the trap of trying to suggest it has an intense but limited following. As happens often within the narrow awards universe (both press and publicists) one hears its main appeal being to the Academy’s so-called “steak eaters,” the core group of older, mainstream male members. 

Within the Academy, there have been signs from the members that its appeal is wider than that and extends to its Liberal wing. Jane Fonda early on caught the core appeal to those, unlike most industry folk, who experience close up the damage of war when she tweeted “Just saw American Sniper. Powerful. Another view of Coming Home…Bravo Clint Eastwood.”

The Oscars aren’t a huge factor in this gross (which in two days is higher than any of the top nominees so far, although “The Imitation Game” also should pass $100 million). But the nominations combined with the response (and controversy) ahead should draw an even wider audience among those otherwise reluctant. See it with an open mind, judge for yourself.

What Next for Selma

If everyone who complained about the Oscar actor/director snubs for “Selma” went out and bought a ticket, the film would become a certified hit. That would send a more effective message and ensure that more films like this would be made. Certainly, the controversy over DuVernay being snubbed (as was Clint Eastwood) for a directing Oscar (among other omissions) has drawn additional attention to her acclaimed film.

Enhanced by this, its actual Best Picture nod, the holiday weekend (honoring the central figure of its story) and likely continued good word of mouth, this had a drop of 27% this weekend (for the three days — it could get a strong boost Monday). Since last weekend’s number, though decent, fell short of some others with similar core audience appeal, this suggests that “Selma” is getting neither the sort of wider audience nor the passionate emotional response that, for example, “The Butler” received. That film in a minor late August weekend fell somewhat more — 33% — but still grossed twice as much ($16.5 million). And it didn’t help that, as usually happens this holiday, a wide appeal comedy with a prime African-American star opened against it (and in three days grossed only $5 million less than “Selma” has so far), and “American Sniper” also was the top performer at many theaters that have mainly minority ticket buyers.

“Selma” cost a reported $20 million. Its marketing costs will surely exceed that amount. Paramount will retain only about half of the ultimate gross, and international likely will bring in a smaller amount. It would have helped the film’s chances of getting into profit to be more Oscar competitive. But ultimately, audience reaction is going to determine its fate. At least one more weekend is going to be needed before we really know the outcome.

There’s a New “Babe” In Town

Don’t lose sight of “Paddington” in all this. The adaptation of the popular English children’s book character, produced by “Harry Potter”‘s David Heyman, already was a massive holiday success in the U.K. (over $50 million so far). Now, buttressed by unexpectedly strong reviews (fun fact: this has a higher Metacritic score than any Weinstein eventual wide release since “Django Unchained” — ahead of “Imitation Game,” “Philomena,” “August: Osage County” among others), this has gained an initial beachhead with a just-under $20 million three day gross that should, if its A Cinemascore and early response from kids as well as parents are an indication, have a significant multiple ahead and possibly approach $100 million.

Kids-oriented films have sometimes popped in the Weinstein universe, including “Spy Kids” (the initial one in the franchise in 2001 opened to $26.5 million). The company decided not to open at Christmas, a period this year that had the latest “Night at the Museum” film to compete for families as well as the later stages of two animated releases. Their move to the next prime holiday — with virtually no competition, and a built-in demand for something new — resulted in possibly a slightly smaller initial gross, but quite possibly higher long-term results. Monday’s holiday number — this could be #2 for the day (yesterday was only a little more than $100,000 from taking second spot) — should give some initial indication. But don’t be surprised if to see this thrive ahead.

A similar live-action kids’ film comparison is the beloved “Babe.” 1995 was a different era, but its opening weekend of $8.7 million adjusted for inflation would fall short of “Paddington”‘s initial result. And that film had a seven times-plus multiple, getting to $63 million. “Paddington” has yet to prove itself “Babe”s equal, but expect to see it stick around for a long time.

Kevin Hart Not Quite So Strong

Though it placed second, and with its lower budget should end up in profit, it’s curious to note that this opened lower than four earlier co-lead releases over the last three years, and only half as much as last year’s “Ride Along” the same weekend. He clearly is still a draw, and no question Sony expected they’d have the big new release this week. A good chunk of the shortfall comes from competition both from “Sniper” and “Selma.” This is Sony’s first film since “The Interview,” and certainly shows them back to normal with exhibitors (this actually got more theaters than any previous Hart film). But it still seems to be a bit under what they hoped for (some printed expectations had this as high as $30 million for the four days: this will fall short. Of note also is that among the leaked emails were some that suggested tension between Hart and the studio.

Michael Mann Has Seen  Better Days

“Blackhat” is a domestic dud, placing only tenth, and significantly, the only new opening aimed more at a younger male audience as part of its hoped-for appeal. That demo has been struggling as of late, and this high-tech action based story seems to have had little draw, despite the presence of “Thor”‘s Chris Hemsworth. What can Universal hope for? Much strong international appeal, particularly in Asia. This is set and partly shot in China, likely giving it bigger appeal there and making it eligible higher than the reported standard 25% film rental in that market. But this has a long way to go to avoid being a significant flop.

Oscar Holdovers and More

  • “Taken 3” is off 64%, considerably more than 56% for “Taken 2.” Stronger foreign response likely keeps this going, but this has lost much of its domestic appeal.
  • “The Imitation Game” got an Oscar boost, $5 million ahead still of “The King’s Speech” at the same exact point, further expansion this Friday.
  • “Into the Woods”: Despite only minor Oscar attention, only down 31% and now having a clear total gross lead over fellow Christmas Day opener.
  • “Unbroken” -was hurt by Universal losing theaters with opening “Blackhat,” part of the reason for its 48% drop (“Sniper” also cut into its base — the favor Warners did to them by delaying its wide release is enormous).
  • The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is also down 48%. This might not quite surpass “Smaug” as second best domestic performer in the series.
  • “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” added another $1.8 million. It will pass “Guardians of the Galaxy” as top 2014 domestic release during the week.

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