American Sniper made $105 million in its opening weekend, the most ever for an R-rated movie. While the box office success of Clint Eastwood’s film is significant, it’s not exactly surprising. Typically, movies about the Iraq War don’t do well financially, but American Sniper is a different kind of war movie coming at a different moment in time.
Part of American Sniper‘s success has to do with appealing to an underserved set of American film viewers: southerners, midwesterners, and military veterans. Based on the book by former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (who was murdered by another soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2013), the film follows Kyle (Bradley Cooper) through his four tours in Iraq, his 160 confirmed kills, and his relationship with his wife and kids who eagerly await his return to them in both body and mind.
American Sniper‘s audience thus far is 57% male, 63% over age 25, and centered not only in major US cities but also in small towns in Texas. Eight of the movie’s top 10 markets were in the south or midwest (paywall).
By contrast, 2009 Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker grossed only $17 million domestically, some six times less than what American Sniper made in its first four days alone. In fact, The Hurt Locker is the lowest grossing Best Picture winner ever. Despite critical acclaim, some veterans came out against it.
Other recent war films with strong political undertones like Stop-Loss, Green Zone, and In the Valley of Elah suffered a similar fate. There has been some discussion of political bias about American Sniper, but its stance on the Iraq War, and war in general, is fairly ambiguous (though Eastwood himself has said he was opposed to the US invading Iraq).
Other recent films have succeeded by taking a similar approach. Lone Survivor (another film starring A-list actors who played Navy SEALs, based on a true story) performed well at the box office by targeting the same demographic. The film marketed heavily in traditionally conservative regions and in some areas provided free screenings for veterans. The 2012 film Act of Valor, which used actual Navy SEALs as actors, was the #1 movie in America its opening weekend despite poor reviews.
The other demographic that helped American Sniper: members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The film’s Oscar nomination for Best Picture gave it the largest-ever boost at the box office, beating out another Iraq war-era film, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty.