‘American Sniper’: The Strategy Behind Warner Bros.’ $107M Opening

21 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘American Sniper’: The Strategy Behind Warner Bros.’ $107M Opening.

Like Kathryn Bigelow’s multiple Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper tells the story of an American military man who distinguished himself in Iraq but found the going more trying back in the US.

“I was against going into the war in Iraq since I figured we would probably trip over ourselves in some way,” Clint Eastwood said back in December after screening American Sniper for Academy members at the Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills.Warner Bros. domestic distribution chief Dan Fellman can’t count the number of times he has called Clint Eastwood over the years to relay opening-weekend box office.

Clint Eastwood’s Oscar nominated film American Sniper has stormed to the top of the world box office, taking just under $100million over the weekend.The Clint Eastwood-directed military thriller “American Sniper” went into wide release last week and set a January record, pulling in $105 million over the four-day holiday weekend.

The history-making wide opening of “American Sniper’’ throws a hand grenade into what was shaping up as a fairly dull Oscar competition between a group of little-seen art movies. And as with Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor, this action drama draws upon an autobiography written by a Navy SEAL who took part in a war where children and adults alike were looked upon as likely enemy combatants. American Sniper, staring six-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper as navy SEAL Chris Kyle, a sniper with 164 confirmed “kills”, has clocked up $99.5 million in box offices across the world since its global release on Friday The film has also been deemed a critical success, with reviews noting that despite its simplistic portrayal of Middle Eastern politics Cooper’s performance as a soldier traumatised – and still battling – his demons elevated the film above the usual American military hagiography. The question on everyone’s mind is, “How did this happen?” Especially when other movies about modern-day warfare haven’t had such strong starts out of the gate — even those with a similar awards-season pedigree, such as “Zero Dark Thirty.” (“Sniper” was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Bradley Cooper.) It’s easy to dismiss film marketing as window-dressing, but whether we want to admit it or not, it often has a huge impact on how audiences perceive a film and whether they deem it interesting, exciting or different enough to run out and see the first weekend. With an estimated $90.2 million three-day weekend and $105 million in ticket sales projected by the close of business on Monday’s holiday, the biggest hit of director Clint Eastwood’s career (among many other smashed records) could well surpass the combined take of the seven other Best Picture nominees combined by the time polls close on Feb. 17.

After years of movie studios getting the military experience wrong with films like “The Hurt Locker,” the 33-year-old said, “American Sniper” had nailed it. But in the man officially credited as the most lethal sharpshooter in US military history, this film possesses a protagonist with a thought-provoking story that, even when it looks to closely focus on him, has much to say about the effects of war on individuals, their families and their country. A Texas ranch hand and sometime bronco rodeo rider who enlisted after the 1998 terrorist bombings of the US Embassy in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) put his ace marksmanship to lethal use on four tours of duty in Iraq. Fellman wasn’t planning on calling Eastwood again until Monday — but by late Saturday, it became clear that the $60 million-budgeted Sniper was surging to a historic $107.2 million North American launch.

American Sniper broke the previous record set by Cloverfield in 2008 for its performance on Friday, and then beat James Cameron’s 2010 epic Avatar (which made $68.5million) for the most taken over the entire weekend. Over the past 25 years, both “Titanic’’ and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’’ won the Best Picture Oscar after rolling up megagrosses while academy members were filling out their ballots (“Avatar’’ notably didn’t). Between his stints there, the increasingly battle-scarred and psychologically affected war veteran spent time back home with his family — but, as his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) increasingly felt, it often seemed like he mentally remained thousands of miles away. Sean Hannity, who’s devoted several segments to the film, said, “I would urge everybody to see it.” Conservative web site Breitbart.com carried an enthusiastic review under the flag-waving headline, “A Patriotic, Pro-War on Terror Masterpiece.” Britain’s left-leaning The Guardian weighed with writer Lindy West asking whether Eastwood, “intentionally or not, makes a hero out of Kyle — who, bare minimum, was a racist who took pleasure in dehumanizing and killing brown people.” And always eager to enlist in the latest culture war, Sarah Palin took a few shots at Hollywood leftists before saying, “May the epic American Sniper bring nothing but blessing to [Kyle’s window] Taya and the children of this true American hero.

Eastwood’s film is up for an Oscar for Best Picture, pitting it against The Imitation Game, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Selma, The Theory of Everything and Whiplash. Smith said while holding hands with his wife, Crystal. “So it was basically a foregone conclusion I’d be here as soon as it opened.” Such a massive opening for a mid-budget drama was perhaps Hollywood’s biggest surprise since “Avengers” blew away box-office records by opening to $207 million in 2012. “Sniper,” directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper, enjoyed the largest opening ever for a drama or R-rated film and more than doubled the prior record for Martin Luther King Day weekend. Impressively buffed up and speaking with a Texas twang, Cooper plays his character as an unmitigated patriot even while Eastwood intriguingly fashions his film to reveal that Kyle’s straightforward view of what’s happening in the world is at odds with reality.

Its success is the strongest evidence yet that audiences including veterans and cultural conservatives who are more concentrated in the South and Midwest feel underserved by Hollywood and will turn out in droves for movies that are inspiring, patriotic and sincere. Eastwood’s movie is actually something of a Rorschach test: His just-the-facts-ma’am approach to Kyle’s story allows viewers to read whatever politics they like into Sniper. Typically, major cities like New York and Los Angeles dominate the top theater rankings for a successful film because they have larger concentrations of frequent moviegoers and higher ticket prices. But Eastwood’s own politics — his bewildering talk-to-the-chair performance at the 2012 Republican Convention notwithstanding — aren’t so easily categorized.

All five of the top theaters for “Lone Survivor” were in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, while “Unbroken” performed extremely well in small cities such as Mesa, Ariz., and Lehi, Utah. The right still sees him as the magnum-wielding Dirty (“Make my day”) Harry even though, in movies like 1992’s Unforgiven — for which he won his first directing Oscar — he’s re-examined the cost of violence (“It’s a hell of a thing, ain’t it, killing a man”). Even the most cynical pundits credit Warners with orchestrating a shrewd marketing campaign that played on patriotism and heroism without alienating moviegoers less prone to flag-waving.

Movies often receive a boost in business after they receive nominations, but the “Oscar bump’’ scored by “American Sniper’’ was one for the record books — an unbelievable 15,465 percent. To reach more conservative audiences, Warner Bros. advertised and arranged publicity on Fox News, military blogs, and in “Soldier of Fortune” magazine, along with more traditional outlets like NFL playoff games, said the studio’s president of world-wide marketing, Sue Kroll. Sniper may suddenly be flush with box-office dollars — which should help the ratings of the Oscar broadcast as more viewers with a rooting interest in the blockbuster tune in — but it doesn’t guarantee it a win.

Of course, if you’ve seen the film, you know how this scene resolves, and how the trailer suggests a higher degree of moral hand-wringing than is perhaps shown in the actual film. Particularly important, she said, were screenings that began before Thanksgiving for veterans’ groups and on military bases to build buzz that the movie wasn’t just good but also authentic. Eastwood, 84, though highly regarded, hasn’t won at Oscar since he took home the directing and best picture trophies for Million Dollar Baby a decade ago, and this year, he wasn’t even nominated for best director. But still, what a way to get ticket buyers into seats. “It was a very unusual trailer,” Warner Bros. marketing head Sue Kroll told the LA Times. “It was quite spare and quiet and designed to be very emotional and provocative.

For one thing, the Oscar conversation stopped being about Thursday’s Best Director snub of “Selma’’ (though a few people on Twitter noted the irony of a movie called “American Sniper’’ scoring so big on a holiday weekend honoring the assassinated civil rights leader portrayed in “Selma,’’ whose $10 million weekend take was dwarfed by “American Sniper’’). That was the declarative moment for us where people started to understand that this movie was maybe not what they thought it would be.” “American Sniper” was also equally aimed at men and women — unusual for a war picture, where young men are often the box-office bread and butter. After seeming to attack the film in a Jan. 25 tweet in which he proclaimed “snipers are cowards,” Michael Moore took to Facebook to clarify his thoughts about Sniper, saying, “Awesome performance by Bradley Cooper.

He and others likewise praise Warners for opening Sniper in select cities over Christmas, the traditional release for sophisticated awards fare, before expanding nationwide the day after Oscar noms were announced. Warner Bros. calculated (apparently correctly) that emphasizing the emotional side of Kyle’s story would attract women. “It doesn’t just focus on the combat and the battle,” says Angie Ricketts, author of the memoir “No Man’s War: Irreverent Confessions of an Infantry Wife.” “ ‘American Sniper’ is more about Chris Kyle as a person and a father and a husband. I thought at the time that would be “Birdman,’’ but “American Sniper’’ may now be in a perfect position to exploit a Best Picture/Best Director split, once fairly rare, but which has occurred the past two years.

One of the best of the year.” However, the intense focus on Sniper also does create challenges for its rivals as they look to build momentum before Academy voting begins on Feb. 6. All the while, Warners aggressively courted members of the military and veterans groups, hiring Glover Park Group, a leading Washington-based consulting firm. The difference between Affleck and Eastwood is that Eastwood already has two Best Director Oscars on his mantelpiece for “Unforgiven’’ and “Million Dollar Baby’’ (as well as Best Picture Oscars for producing those films). Most modern war films, from Green Zone to Zero Dark Thirty, have ignited potentially damaging debate about U.S. policies before their openings, but not Sniper (only with its phenomenal launch has such debate begun). “This is the first contemporary mainstream war film that really tells a personal story about soldiers. Though impossible to prove, many suspected that controversy made the film too hot to handle, and so the Academy handed its top prize to the much more viewer-friendly Argo.

Repeating the success of “American Sniper” won’t be as easy as pumping out “Iron Man” sequels. “This is a very specific film at a very specific point in time with all the right elements,” said Ms. Appearing Jan. 16 on Real Time with Bill Maher, Zero director Kathryn Bigelow was asked her opinion of Sniper, but refused to be drawn into the discussion, saying she hadn’t seen the movie. His current run as “The Elephant Man” on Broadway is the season’s hottest show, and his “Guardians of the Galaxy” was last year’s highest-grossing movie, with a domestic total of more than $333 million. With the wounds from Vietnam War still a raw, Coming Home, the drama about returning vets starring Jane Fonda, was viewed as the anti-war choice, while Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, about a trio of Pennsylvania steel-workers’ tour in Vietnam, was seen as the more patriotic alternative — that movie ended with the survivors singing “God, Bless America.” Both films attracted demonstrators outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the 51st Academy Awards: A group called Vietnam Veterans Against the War protested The Deer Hunter, and its invented Russian Roulette sequence for “misinterpretation of reality.” In the end, though, while Coming Home won best screenplay and best actress and actor for Fonda and Jon Voight, Deer Hunter prevailed, winning five Oscars, including director and picture. I really can’t think of anyone better to make a movie like that.” It’s a tried-and-true Hollywood strategy: When you’ve got a product you think will appeal to a niche market, it pays to get that market on board early.

Religious-themed films, including “The Passion of the Christ,” are often driven by church outreach, for example. “Warner Bros. reached out to us and made it a priority to make sure the military community was feeling good about this movie,” says Rachael Murray, director of entertainment at the USO of Metropolitan New York, which held an “American Sniper” screening at Brooklyn’s Fort Hamilton. “They really wanted it to sit well within the military community. A key indication that active-duty military turned out: 37 percent of ticket buyers were under age 25, an unusually high ratio for an R-rated adult drama. “It’s mind-boggling the way it has played,” says Fellman, adding that he received a call from Regal Entertainment president and COO Greg Dunn, whose Knoxville, Tenn.-based chain has a major presence in small towns in Middle America. “They’ve never seen such fantastic grosses. There are people going to see Sniper who haven’t been to the movies in two or three years.” Cooper, star of The Hangover films, is another draw for young people. Many are estimating Sniper will gross $250 million or more domestically and another $125 million overseas, where the American story faces inherent challenges.

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