At an estimated, jaw-dropping $90.2 million, American Sniper’s opening weekend ranks among the most perplexing, mind-boggling box office stories in modern Hollywood history. It’s the kind of number that shatters all precedence and creates its own, one that will make it nearly impossible to predict where the movie goes from here. Why is this so shocking? How high can it go? And most importantly for this site, will it have a serious effect on the awards race? Let’s take a look.
How unprecedented is this?
Extremely, in just about every way imaginable. For Clint Eastwood, the movie outgrossed all but four of his directorial efforts by the end of Saturday, and by Monday it will have outgrossed everything but Gran Torino (a movie it should fly by next weekend). As a January wide release, it has more than doubled the previous record for a January opening, originally held by last year’s Ride Along ($41.2 million). It’s very, very rare that a general record like this is shattered in such a manner. It’s also a non-franchise film, a movie with absolutely no aspirations of launching a sequel or expanded universe (one would hope, anyway). Among movies like that, the closest comparison would be The Passion of the Christ ($83.8 million) from 11 years ago (unless you count Christianity as a franchise).
And then there’s the movie’s R-rating. With the current estimate, Sniper currently holds the second largest opening weekend for an R-rated movie, behind only The Matrix Reloaded ($91.8 million). Holding any one of these titles would be impressive for any movie. Holding all of them at once jaw-dropping. There’s also the matter of where it ranks among Oscar contenders through the years – this number is the second best opening ever for a Best Picture nominee, behind only Toy Story 3 ($110.3 million), and that was a traditional summer blockbuster sequel. I’ll talk a little more about how the Oscars will relate to this box office performance in a bit.
Where does it go from here?
No idea. As I said at the beginning of the article, there is absolutely no precedent for a movie like this. Genuine blockbuster openings like this just don’t happen in January. Non-franchise R-rated movies never open this high, and they never have an A+ Cinemascore. And it has a whole awards season to get through. With all of this in mind, its legs should be strong.
The only question is, how strong? $300 million seems like the best bet – it’s a nice, round number, and considers both potential mainstream frontloading (people rushing out for opening weekend) and also strong word-of-mouth combined with general awards buzz over the coming weeks. But that’s definitely not a ceiling. Competition is very weak over the next month (there’s no real event movie until Fifty Shades of Grey, and the audience overlap there with Sniper is non-existent), and if word-of-mouth is truly out-of-this-world, it is not impossible that the movie overtakes The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I to become the highest-grossing movie of 2014.
And what does this all mean for the Oscars?
Possibly something very good. Of all of the unprecedented things about this release, perhaps most unprecedented of all is the film’s Oscar status. Most blockbusters that become Oscar contenders have been established as such well before the nomination voting happens, even for late December releases like say, Les Miserables or Django Unchained. And normally the movies that wait for January releases, like Zero Dark Thirty or Eastwood’s own Million Dollar Baby, are waiting so that awards success can turn into financial success, not vice-versa. Basically, box office is usually mostly irrelevant to phase two of the Oscar voting. However, these box office numbers might end up being the most relevant numbers of the entire season.
The question is, how much will it influence? Is it enough to make up for Sniper’s weak precursor run? Let’s look at the movie’s six nominations, category-by-category, and consider where it stands:
Sound Mixing/Sound Effects Editing: The movie is a bonafide frontrunner in both categories, and I’m not sure anything is stopping it. There are certain types of movies that leap out to voters in these categories, and war movies have always been a reliable type (see: The Hurt Locker, Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan). Whiplash could provide competition in Mixing, but it might ultimately be too small a movie against this juggernaut.
Film Editing: What do the above three war movies I just mentioned all have in common? Film Editing wins. Although Boyhood’s 12 year production process has given its editor Sandra Lee plenty of positive attention, it might not be flashy enough to overcome Sniper. The ACE Eddie awards may or may not clear things up (and both movies missed at BAFTA, so that’s a wash).
Adapted Screenplay: This category is very up in the air right now, with The Imitation Game positioned as a somewhat weak frontrunner and Whiplash as a possible spoiler. If the Academy goes Sniper-crazy, it could definitely upset here, although the Screenplay hasn’t really been held up as one of the film’s stronger aspects.
Actor: Now, what HAS been held up as one of the film’s strongest aspects? Bradley Cooper. Despite missing all four major precursors Cooper managed to make the lineup over some stiff competition, and he finds himself in a race with no clear frontrunner. It’s his third nomination in a row, he’s a bonafide movie star, and the role has all the trademarks of an Oscar winning performance, right down to the deglamming weight gain. If neither Keaton nor Redmayne establish themselves as undeniable frontrunners, this can be Cooper’s to lose.
Picture: Perhaps the most enticing thing to consider about Sniper’s newfound success: after many months of various threats to its frontrunner status, will this box office juggernaut be what finally undoes the strong but small frontrunner Boyhood? History says an immediately swift “no,” as Boyhood has an obscene amount of momentum, and Sniper has so much ground to make up between solid-not-great reviews and a mediocre precursor performance. But then, I’ve already used the word “unprecedented” three times in this write-up, so who knows?