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'American Sniper' box office: Why it probably will never happen again

American Sniper surpassed Hunger Games - Mockingjay Part 1 to become the highest grossing film of 2014

Over the weekend American Sniper took in $4.5 million at the box office. That wouldn’t, on its face, seem like a major achievement. The 2014 release has grossed a lot more earlier in its lifespan — in fact it's grossed a lot more on every other weekend since it widened in mid-January.

But those few dollars had a critical effect: they put “Sniper” above the $337-million mark domestically, just ahead of “The Hunger Games – Mockingjay Part I,” which took in just under $337 million. And “The Hunger James – Mockingjay Part I” was the top grosser for 2014.

Which means that, yes, a military drama has now taken in more money than any movie released last year. More than Katniss and her dystopian adventures, more than those who guard the galaxy, more than the sequels from Spider-Man or X-Men or a different soldier, the winter one from Captain America.

You don’t need to follow box office closely to realize how unusual this is. The last time a movie that wasn’t a sequel won the year-end crown was five years ago, when “Avatar” grossed $750 million. And “Avatar” is an anomaly in so many ways, not to mention a giant and expensive 3-D extravaganza.

The last time a conventional drama won the year-end box office crown in this tentpole age was when “Saving Private Ryan” did so 16 years ago — an eternity in moviegoing time. In fact, it was so long ago it was before the tent-pole age. And in any event, “Ryan” was a rather different kind of military picture than “Sniper,” its more spectacle-y moments putting it in some respects much closer to the summer-action camp than to “Sniper,” which at heart is a character drama.

By now the reasons for the Warner Bros.’ film’s success have been combed over more closely than a Bill O’Reilly boast. Clearly a movie that captures the heartland (and the Sarah Palin and Blake Shelton endorsements that go with it) carries some major upside, especially when it’s combined with an art-house audience, a general action audience, a bestselling-book audience, an older-male Eastwood ausience and a younger-female Bradley Cooper audience.

This is a film that —and I realize the irony in saying this, given some of the bitter divisions around the film— is in some senses been as unifying as films get.

When a studio movie prospers at this level it often means a bunch of similar projects follow; nothing gives Hollywood a case of the copycats like success. But the surprising thing about “American Sniper” is that with each dollar it earned it actually may have become less beneficial to other similar movies. I talked to a producer recently who said that a modest success would have been, paradoxically, more helpful to get another drama of this scale through the studio gantlet.

As a producer trying to pitch a film you always look for comps, and it’s a lot harder to say you have a movie that’s like “Sniper” once “Sniper” started reaching the stratosphere. A handful of $75-million grossers might have been a lot more helpful to jumpstarting the war-drama subgenre than one crazy $337-million hit (and a half billion worldwide as of this weekend, for good measure). No respectable producer can now make the "Sniper" comparison at a meeting without someone else saying how much of an outlier “Sniper” is.

“American Sniper” may never happen again for its confluence of events—stars, subject and a moment when we were ready to fully relive the Iraq War. But it also may never happen again because Hollywood executives with greenlight power may take a  look at the outsized performance of “Sniper," turn around and say "this will never happen again."

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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