Since it's apparently American Sniper week at the ole Editor's Blog, allow me to offer an explanation for the surprising success of American Sniper at the box office last weekend.
There have been a number of listicle-style chin-strokers this week offering the same basic reasons for Clint Eastwood's latest's success. They go something like this: "(1) The marketing campaign was really good and (2) Oscar buzz combined with (3) a built-in, undercounted audience meant boffo box office." And that's all true! I think these are all good points: The marketing campaign was really good and the Oscar buzz did help and box office prognosticators are often kind of clueless when it comes to what will appeal to "heartland" audiences.
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Allow me to suggest that there's another—or, perhaps, an additional—reason for the success, one that has to do with the so-called culture wars.
Over the last week, American Sniper has devolved from a well-reviewed, Oscar-nominated film into the frontline of said war, with lefty outlets slamming its failure to apologize for American "misdeeds" in Iraq and righty outlets crowing about the picture's success and praising it for showing a side of military life that Hollywood doesn't usually go in for. The fault lines here are all terribly predictable.
However, one week ago, that wasn't really the case. American Sniper was, I think, part of the culture war. But it was a secret part of the culture war, a one-sided, asymmetrical battle in the culture war. What I mean by this is that a lot of conservatives—the folks who turned Chris Kyle's autobiography into a massive, 1.6-million-copy selling hit—made a point of going to see this film, in part to send a message that they will support a movie that supports their values.
But this semi-planned message-sending flew entirely under the radar, meaning there was no opportunity for a fight to break out before the film went wide. Instead of weeks of arguments going something like "ZOMG this film is evil and icky/ZOMG this film is the greatest piece of moviemaking ever" there was … nothing. A relative calm. Indeed, before the ideologues jumped into the mix, a number of critics were arguing that American Sniper is actually an anti-war film.* Then the Oscar nominations were announced and American Sniper‘s surprise haul upped anticipation among those interested in the film as a film, as opposed to an ideological object.
What I'm saying, or at least trying to say, is that American Sniper is that rare piece of art that benefitted from the culture war without being dinged by it, at least for a weekend. Instead of having positive and negative poles duking it out, inflating box office from one group while deflating it from another, you had one positive pole (conservatives who love Chris Kyle) and a second neutral-to-positive pole (liberals excited for an Oscar-nominated film with a big star and a popular director), along with the mass of moviegoers who don't really pay any attention to this crap. That factor had to have helped contribute to its record-shattering opening weekend.
The big question now is how well the film will hold. Now that we're in a full-blown culture war conflagration, will coastal audiences stay home? Will even more conservatives show up? Was the audience front-loaded, suggesting a big second-weekend dip? Or will the amazingly strong word of mouth keep numbers high? For what it's worth, I'm predicting a drop in the range of 40 percent, a pretty solid hold for a flick that opened that big. But with the lack of competition at the box office and the lack of football on TVs, it could do even better.
*Of all the arguments that have taken place about American Sniper, the supposition that it is some sort of rah-rah-war-is-fun-the-GOP-is-great flick is the oddest.