Box Office Top 10 Film News

How the Heck Did American Sniper Just Blow Every January Box Office Record Out of the Water?

January used to be a dead zone for new movies, but then Ride Along and Lone Survivor had two of the biggest January openings of all time last year, and Taken 3 finished right behind them last week.  All right.  Okay.  This is good.  We’re slowly starting to chip away at the old release models and proving that films can be hits outside of the summer and November-December.  I like it a….holy crap.  American Sniper just made how much this weekend?  Wow, this whole “Turn January into a Good Month for New Movies” just got a real big shot in the arm.  Moreover, both Wedding Ringer and Paddington had respectable opening weekends.  The only loser in the bunch was the Michael Mann-Chris Hemsworth collaboration Blackhat, which bombed in a way unique to movies playing in that many theaters.  Elsewhere, there were your standard Oscar nominees getting the Oscar bump and the continued goodwill toward Into the Woods and new ill will toward Taken 3.  Let’s do the numbers:

Top 10 Estimated Domestic Totals (1/16-1/18)

1. American Sniper (Nationwide Expansion)

American Sniper Movie

  • Weekend Gross=$90.2 million
  • Total Gross to Date=$93.6 million
  • Budget=$60 million

Foreign: After debuting in Italy two weeks ago, American Sniper added 7 more markets this weekend and grossed $9.3M for a new international/worldwide split of $25.3M/$118.9M.  It already had the biggest opening in Italy for any Clint Eastwood film, and it just did the same thing in the UK, Taiwan, Peru, and New Zealand.

Quick, do your best impression of Janice from Friends: “Oh. My. God.”

That is pretty much way the only way you can react to what American Sniper just did, although I suspect that many of those who saw it this weekend wouldn’t have liked me using the Lord’s name just now in that Friends quote.  Of course, that assumes this must all have been fueled by the conservative red states, endless publicity from FOX News, and Mr. Clint “I Talk to Empty Chairs at the Republican National Convention” Eastwood.  Not true.  The Hollywood Reporter broke this down, and American Sniper‘s leading theaters were in San Antonio (where the film’s real life hero, deceased NAVY Seal Chris Kyle, was from), Oklahoma City, Houston, New York, Albuquerque, Nashille, Knoxville, Kansas City and Irvine, California.  Its leading individual region was California followed by Texas, Georgia, and Florida.  There’s a lot of red in there but at least a little blue.

So, how big was this, really?  Well, here are just some of the records American Sniper now owns:

  • Biggest January Opening Of All Time – Previous Record Holder: Ride Along ($41M)
  • Biggest Opening Day in January – Previous Record Holder: Cloverfield ($17M)
  • Biggest Single Day in January – Previous Record Holder: Avatar ($25.8M)
  • Second Biggest R-Rated Opening Of All Time – Record Holder: The Matrix Reloaded ($91M)
  • Second Biggest Non-Comic Book, Non-Fantasy/Science Fiction Film – Record Holder: Fast & Furious 6 ($97M)
  • Biggest Opening for a Best Picture Oscar Nominee
  • Biggest Opening Weekend in Clint Eastwood’s Career – Previous Record Holder: Gran Torino ($29.5M)
  • Biggest MLK Weekend Debut – It’s projected to make $105M for the 4-Day Holiday
  • Biggest IMAX Opening for an R-Rated Film – Over $11M for the weekend

Simply put, this did not at all perform like a January release or some Oscar nominee.  Instead, the numbers it put up are closer to that of a comic book movie, e.g., Amazing Spider-Man 2, Days of Future Past, The Winter Soldier, and Guardians of the Galaxy all posted $90-$95M opening weekends last year.  Just like a comic book or tentpole movie, American Sniper played huge in IMAX, which is amazing considering that the studio had to do a lightning fast, last minute conversion to get it into IMAX.  That obviously was not originally in their plans.

But the question that no one really has a solid answer to remains: How did this happen?

Guardians_of_the_Galaxy_43785It caught Bradley Cooper at the apex of his career?  Yeah, but outside of Hangover 2 and Guardians of the Galaxy he’s never been in a movie that made more than $60M in its opening weekend.  In fact, all of his big box office performers have been sold as ensemble pieces.  His ceiling for films featuring him as the obvious primary star had been 2011’s Limitless, which opened south of $20M and ended up just south of $80M.

It caught Clint Eastwood at just the right time?  Nope.  Not after every film he’s made since Gran TorinoInvictus, Hereafter, J. Edgar, Jersey Boys – has been a domestic box office bomb

It was a perfectly timed national expansion to coincide with its 6 Oscar Nominations?  Actually, yes.  However, back when there were only 5 Best Picture nominees, a nomination meant an average increase of 80% in gross from the time of nomination to day of the actual awards.  Since the Academy expanded to include as many as 10 films, that bump had fallen to just 60% until Zero Dark Thirty and Silver Linings Playbook scored 100% bumps.  The point is that the Academy inadvertently devalued the cache of being a Best Picture nominee, and that only in certain circumstances could that be overcome.  American Sniper is a strange case to regard in that light because it had only been playing in 4 theaters for three straight weekends prior to this expansion.  So, of course there was going to be a huge jump with its nationwide expansion.  How much of that is due to any kind of Oscar bump is impossible to quantify.

It’s the perfect war movie whose politics are subtle, speechifying non-existant, confict depicted being for a war thought to be over now, and focus on a relatable central hero figure key to its appeal?  Yeah, but Lone Survivor kind of had all of that going for it, too, and while it was huge last January ($37M opening) it didn’t even do half of what American Sniper just pulled off.

The marketing was ingenious?  Actually, yes.  The primary imagery from this film’s marketing campaign focused not just on the war scenes but also at home, with one trailer depicting a harrowing scene of Cooper’s character in the war zone talking to his wife at home in the States about her pregnancy only for his group to come under attack while his terrified wile, miles away, can only listen in and plead for her husband to get back on the phone to verify that he’s okay.  Such trailers and TV spots were usually punctuated by remarkably flowery pull-quotes from reviews describing this as one of the great films of all time, Eastwood’s masterpiece, Cooper’s finest hour, etc.

It got that Passion of the Christ audience?  As Scott Mendleson of Forbes argued, “This was indeed the kind of performance that resembled The Passion of the Christ, in that it brought out not just the politically-inclined and those connected to the military, but also the kind of audiences that don’t necessarily flock to the movies yet came out (and will come out) for this one. And frankly that’s a good thing.”

It got that conservative audience?  Again, as Meldeson argued, “Films that unequivocally play to and/or are about people living in so-called flyover country yet are actually released wide enough to be seen by said moviegoers are akin to event movies. American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood, earning mostly decent reviews and the above-noted Oscar buzz, and acting as a rare big-budget war movie that didn’t necessarily rub audiences’ faces in the morality of the specific conflict was indeed akin to The Avengers for the specific audience that will eat this up like catnip.

Of course, it is all of those things, but the fact that all of those things added up to more than $90M over 3 days, and $105M over 4 days is OMG amazing.

2. Wedding Ringer (Opening Weekend)

Wedding Ringer

  • Weekend Gross=$21 million
  • Budget=$23 million

Foreign: No foreign box office yet

After Ride Along, About Last Night, and Think Like a Man Too, this is the fourth straight Kevin Hart film to post a $20M+ opening weekend, which is an amazing feat for any actor these days.  However, Ride Along made double that ($41.5M) when it opened over the same weekend last year, and it went on to gross an impressive $134M.  Wedding Ringer is clearly not in the same league.  Instead, it will probably do something closer to About Last Night, which opened with $25M and ended with $48M.  This is not bad, exactly.  Just look at what Chris Hemsworth’s Blackhat did this weekend to see how few true bankable movie stars there are these days.  However, the question remains whether or not Hart is hurting his long term bankability by simply being in way too many films in such a short amount of time.  Heck, he already has another movie due out two months from now, Get Hard with Will Ferrell.

3. Paddington (Opening Weekend)


  • Weekend Gross=$19.2 million
  • Budget=They’re not telling

Foreign: Paddington has actually been out in countries like Australia, Italy, New Zealand, South Korea, and the UK, among several others, since mid-December.  Even in such a short amount of time, it managed to become one the highest-grossing films in the UK in 2014.  Currently, it has grossed $122.1M internationally for a worldwide total of $141.4M.

Originally ticketed for a December release, Paddington was pushed to January to avoid the family movie pile-up (Into the Woods, Annie, Night at the Museum 3, etc.) around Christmas.  However, while it waited to come here it was turning into a national treasure in the UK, where the release was not pushed back.  Simply put, people adore this movie, or at the very least critics sure do, with 98% Fresh on RottenTomatoes.  That level of adoration has not quite been met at the box office, where a $19.2M weekend total is solid, but it’s almost identical to what The Nut Job – a film with a dreadful 10% RottenTomatoes rating – did over the same weekend last year.

4. Taken 3

Taken 3 Movie

  • Weekend Gross=$14 million (-64% from last weekend)
  • Total Gross to Date=$62.8 million
  • Budget=$48 million

Foreign: $31.4M this weekend for a new international/worldwide split of $96.7M/$160.4M.

And now this makes more sense.  Taken 3‘s huge opening weekend was kind of hard to completely understand given the way the franchise has become a punchline, and Liam Neeson had just appeared in 4 films last year, the last of which bombed suggesting the world had maybe seen enough of Mr. Neeson for a while.  Instead, Taken 3 rode a fantastic “A. This is the last Taken film ever! B. This isn’t like the first two!” publicity campaign to a near record-setting opening, but now it has plummeted in its second weekend in a way no prior Taken film has.  Even the rather front-loaded Taken 2 only fell 56% in its second weekend.  It doesn’t really matter because this thing must surely be in or at least dang close to pure profit at this point with $160M worldwide against a $48M production budget and unknown marketing budget, but it is now performing like the final film in a franchise which audiences had grown tired of.  Domestically, that is.  Internationally, it is actually performing better than Taken 2 in most major markets.

5. Selma 


  • Weekend Gross=$8.3 million (-27% from last weekend)
  • Total Gross to Date=$25.9 million
  • Budget=$20 million

Foreign: No foreign box office yet

Frankly, I would have expected a Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic which scored an ultra-rare A+ from CinemaScore to have posted a better hold than 27% when entering into the weekend of the Martin Luther King holiday.  For any other film and situation, 27% is a good hold, but I thought Selma would do even better.  However, the film’s actual box office takes a backseat right now.  People from the film, including Oprah, actually participated in a march in Selma, Alabama yesterday, and Paramount Pictures has arranged free screenings of Selma for school children in New York, Boston, Nashville, Philadelphia and San Francisco, among other cities.  At least for today, Selma is more than “just a movie.”

6. The Imitation Game

Imitation Game

  • Weekend Gross=$7.1 million (-0.3% from last weekend)
  • Total Gross to Date=$50.7 million
  • Budget=They’re not telling

Foreign: $6.6M this weekend, including debuts in Belgium, Sweden, Portugal, Poland and India.  Its updated international/worldwide split is $40.8M/$91.6M.

The arguments against Selma‘s historical accuracy arguably had something to do with it being shut out of all major Oscar categories other than Best Picture.  Why, then, is there not as much outrage about Imitation Game, which is just as if not even more historically inaccurate about the events it depicts.  In fact, the Guardian argued some of the changes they made to Alan Turing’s actual life are tantamount to slander.  We’re apparently more upset about Selma because it dares impugn the good name of an American president (LBJ) to further aggrandize an American icon (Martin Luther King, Jr.) whereas Imitation Game is simply about some British guy we’d never heard of before?  Or does all of this actually have very little to do with awards campaigns, and it simply comes down to whether or not your movie was made by The Weinstein Co., the kings of not just buying nominations through multi-million dollar campaigns but also turning those films into actual box office hits?  They did it with The King’s Speech (which won Best Picture and pulled $135M domestic), and they’ve done it again with The Imitation Game (8 Oscar nominations), which is following pretty much the same exact release pattern as King’s Speech.  At this point, Imitation Game is now into the “Oscar bump” portion of its release, and it is actually $6M ahead of where King’s Speech was at in the same point of its release cycle.

7. Into the Woodsnew-photo-for-the-into-the-woods-movie

  • Weekend Gross=$6.5 million (-32% from last weekend)
  • Total Gross to Date=$114.2 million
  • Budget=$50 million

Foreign: $7.3M from 20 markets this weekend, including debuts in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Serbia, Thailand, Vietnam.  Its updated international/worldwide split is $26M/$140.2M

It might not seem like it since this is a Disney release featuring recognizable movie stars (Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Chris Pine, Anna Kendrick) and a hot shot director (Rob Marshall, of Chicago and Pirates of the Caribbean fame), but Into the Woods was a real passion project for all involved.  Disney was only willing to give them a very modest budget, and the way Marshall has been telling it in interviews everyone on the film, cast and crew, worked for less than you’d expect.  The result is something that has the look of a very profitable film.  It’s just going to get most of that from the domestic market since there isn’t as much internaitonal awareness of the original Sondheim musical once you get past the UK.  So far, it’s doing very well in the UK and Australia, debuting at #2 in each country’s box office top 10 last weekend, but there’s nothing to suggest it is going to come anywhere even remotely close to Les Miserables, which was an even bigger international sensation ($293M) than domestic ($148M).

8. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armiesthe-hobbit-the-battle-of-the-five-armies-image-smaug1

  • Weekend Gross=$4.8 million (-48% from last weekend)
  • Total Gross to Date=$244.5 million
  • Budget=They’re not telling

Foreign: $9.8M from 62 markets this weekend for a new international/worldwide split of $558.6M/$803.1M.  It still has China left to go (1/23), but for now its top international market is Germany ($76.7M).

What seems to have happened here is that there was enough interest in seeing the “Final Lord of the Rings/Hobbit movie” to give The Battle of Five Armies a hot start, definitely better than the one Desolation of Smaug got off to last year.  However, there wasn’t enough actual love for Five Armies to generate the type of word-of-mouth that could sustain that start.  The result is that at one point earlier in its release Five Armies actually had an outside chance of reaching Unexpected Journey‘s $303M domestic total, but now it could very well end up failing to even match Desolation of Smaug‘s $258M. We won’t exactly weep for them, though.  Five Armies just passed $800M worldwide, making it the second highest grossing film originally released in 2014, pushing ahead of Guardians of the Galaxy ($771M) but well behind Transformers ($1.084B).

9. Unbroken

  • Weekend Gross=$4.2 million (-48% from last weekend)
  • Total Gross to Date=$108.6 million
  • Budget=$65 million

Foreign: $6.6M from 32 territories this weekend, including debuts in Australia, Russia, and Brazil, for a new international/worldwide split of $21.8M/$130.4M.  It will hit 30 more international markets over the next couple of months.

Unbroken is now the rare case of an awards hopeful, “prestige picture” that failed to garner any serious awards consideration (no Golden Globe or BAFTA nominations, just 3 Oscar nominations but all for sound mixing/editing and Cinematography) but succeeded to sell plenty of tickets and turn into a decent performer for the studio.

10. Blackhat (Opening Weekend)


  • Weekend Gross=$4 million
  • Budget=$70 million

Foreign: $2.2M in 19 territories, such as Malaysia, Ukraine, Denmark, this weekend for a worldwide debut of $6.2M

Marvel Studios makes stars out of characters that are simply the best of what’s left after years of mismanagement left them without the film rights to Spider-Man, X-Men, and The Fantastic Four.  However, Marvel Studios does not make stars out of those actors playing those characters, at least not reliably bankable stars.  You can’t simply put Robert Downey, Jr. into an adult drama (The Judge) co-starring Robert Duvall and expect it to hit huge just because he’s Iron Man just as you can’t put Chris Evans into an international action film (Snowpiercer) and expect it to even earn a national domestic theatrical release just because he’s Captain American.  You also can’t put Chris Hemsworth into a racing movie (Rush) and expect domestic audiences to care just because he’s Thor, and apparently if you then try to sell him as an internet hacker (Blackhat) audiences will flat out laugh at the trailer (What hacker has those abs?) and just skip the movie entirely regardless of whether or not critics say it’s worth seeing (they don’t; it only has 31% on RottenTomatoes).  The result is that Blackhat just posted one of the worst opening weekends of all time for a film playing in more than 2,500 theaters.  Oddly, other than Downey, Jr. two Sherlock Holmes films it’s actually the two Avengers whose characters haven’t had their own solo films – Scarlett Johansson with Lucy, Jeremy Renner with Bourne Legacy – who’ve been able to anchor their own film and steer it toward a big opening weekend.

What Dropped Out of the Top 10?:

Night at the Museum 2 (#7 to #11), Annie (#8 to #12), The Woman in Black 2 (#9 to #13), and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay.  Wow, Mockingjay is just $2M shy of tying Guardians of the Galaxy ($333M) for the biggest domestic total of any film released in 2014, but at this point it may not quite get there.

What’s Up Next?:

Wide releases for Jennifer Lopez’s sultry The Boy Next Door, Johnny Depp’s goofy Mortdecai, and George Lucas’ whimsical Strange Magic.

Sources: (domestic), Deadline (international)

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