How “American Sniper” became Clint Eastwood’s biggest hit to date

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Over the past few weeks, Clint Eastwood’s second 2014 release (after the mostly ignored musical Jersey Boys) American Sniper has gone from an also ran in the awards race to a Best Picture nominee and a huge financial success. What started with an incredibly profitable limited opening has morphed now into a wide release that has set all the records for the box office in the month of January. How did this happen? This was once thought of as a second tier film through and through, so what makes it the blockbuster among the Academy’s Best Picture lineup. Let’s look at the movie now and try to find out.

First of all, if you know nothing about the movie, here’s a quick primer. It’s a biopic/war film about decorated sniper Chris Kyle, known as perhaps the United States’ best ever in that field. During the Iraq War, he had more confirmed kills than anyone, leading to some calling him a hero. Back home, he struggled with being away from the field, which put a strain on his marriage. His story ultimately ends in tragedy, which is best left for viewers unaware of Kyle’s life to discover. Eastwood directs a cast led by Bradley Cooper a Kyle, with Sienna Miller as his wife. The script is by Jason Hall, which at one point was going to be directed by Steven Spielberg (and then actually David O. Russell, due to his relationship with Cooper). Eastwood came on board and utilized his quick filmmaking skills, leading to a last minute 2014 release. The rest now is literally history, both in terms of the box office and potentially also the Oscars.

Secondly, it’s important to realize just how strong this box office opening actually is for American Sniper. It played like a superhero movie, frankly, opening to a three day total of $89.5 million and including today, it’ll make for a four day weekend gross of $105.3 million. Honestly, that’s insane. It’s easily the biggest January opening of all time, an all time great opening for an R rated film, and almost unheard of for a biopic. It certainly wasn’t the plan. This weekend was initially thought to be Selma’s time, due obviously in part to it being MLK weekend, but still…these numbers are above and beyond any one single factor. It’s definitely a combination of things.

So what are the factors fueling all of this? On the one hand here, there’s an absolutely incredible marketing campaign out there, including Trailers and TV Spots that have even pundits who don’t like the film salivating over how good the ads look. Especially highlighting one particularly intense sequence really creates a sense of the type of film American Sniper could be, even if reviews suggest that it’s not ultimately on that level. Perception in this case is certainly equaling to reality.

There’s also both Cooper’s star power and the prestige of being nominated for Academy Awards. Between American Hustle, Guardians of the Galaxy, Limitless, and Silver Linings Playbook, Cooper has become not only an Oscar favorite (nominated for American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook), he’s become a box office draw. That certainly helps here, particularly when he’s also cited in the Best Actor field for this one (as well as producing, which makes him a four time nominee now). Ads can now say that American Sniper is nominated for six Academy Awards, and that’s not shabby. Once you get to the half dozen level and above, audiences tend to take notice.

Finally, the combination of a little controversy and the fact that this is a war film that a more conservative audience seems to want to embrace, well, that plays into it as well. Issues with Kyle’s book and the authenticity of his claims give this a newsworthy buzz, while theatergoers who normally would worry about a supposed liberal message in their war movies don’t have to fret about that, considering Kyle’s views as well as Eastwood’s. That doesn’t tell the whole story, as audiences on both coasts turned out in droves for American Sniper, but the film is definitely benefiting from attracting people that something like Zero Dark Thirty wasn’t able to attract.

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I’ll have plenty more to say about American Sniper and its Oscar hopes, but it’s certainly making a case to be taken a lot more seriously than many previously were. I’m not 100% sure it can be a threat for Best Picture, but Best Actor for Cooper could potentially be an upset win, so there’s that. Keep checking back as the race unfolds, now that we know American Sniper is the blockbuster of the lineup. Anything is possible, as we saw with the nominations. It’ll be exciting to follow this path and find out how it ultimately winds up doing.

Stay tuned to see how American Sniper continues to do!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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