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In marketing 'American Sniper,' Warner Bros. treads carefully with gender and politics

War movies have historically been considered a male-oriented genre, but "American Sniper" is bucking the trend

Hollywood has not traditionally been known for nuanced thinking when it comes to gender assumptions in movie marketing. According to the crude calculus of studio salesmanship, women like movies featuring romance and pretty dresses and almost anything associated with Ryan Gosling, while men favor movies featuring guns and explosions and almost anything associated with Clint Eastwood.

So one would have figured that, in crafting the marketing campaign for a war movie called “American Sniper” — directed by Eastwood — Warner Bros. would have aimed with sniper-like precision at an almost exclusively male demographic.

But in the real-life story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (played in the film by Bradley Cooper), who was the most lethal sniper in American military history and a devoted husband and father, the studio recognized early that it had the rare war movie that could appeal equally to both women and men.

The film toggles between action-packed sequences of Iraq War combat that wouldn’t be out of place in a “Call of Duty” video game and more intimate scenes of Kyle’s relationship back home with his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), and their two children. 

From the outset, the studio carefully devised a marketing campaign that would showcase the film's wrenching emotional firepower as much as if not more than its gunplay. 

“When we screened the film for the first time, it hit me like a punch in the stomach,” said Sue Kroll, president of worldwide marketing and international distribution for Warner Bros. “What struck me was that this was a very personal story, and it could have been told about any soldier in any war at any time in our history.

“To talk about it as just a war film really would have been to sell it short. This is a portrayal of a man who’s torn between his family and his sense of duty. This is a relationship movie with the backdrop of war.” 

While the film won’t be released nationwide until Jan. 16, the studio’s campaign has been a remarkable success. Released in just four theaters on Dec. 25, “American Sniper” set a record for the largest-ever Christmas opening for any title in fewer than 10 theaters, with a $212,500 per-theater average. The movie earned an A+ CinemaScore, showing broad appeal to both women and men and moviegoers above and below age 25.

From its earliest stages, Kroll said, the marketing for “American Sniper” was engineered to convey the sense that this was not a typical war movie. The first teaser, released last October, was starkly simple, featuring a single tense scene of Kyle taking aim at a young Iraqi boy from a rooftop and deliberating whether to pull the trigger. 

“It was a very unusual trailer,” Kroll said. “It was quite spare and quiet and designed to be very emotional and provocative. That was the declarative moment for us where people started to understand that this movie was maybe not what they thought it would be.”

Trailers and TV spots since then have largely avoided the kind of bloody battle footage typically showcased in ads for war movies — Sony Pictures' World War II film “Fury” being a recent example. 

“We could, of course, move this into an area that’s a little more young male — there could be an incredible action campaign,” Kroll said. “But that wouldn’t feel appropriate to the story of ‘American Sniper.’ That would be simplifying things to bring it to the lowest common denominator. I think people have enough of that out there.”

While movies dealing with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have historically been politically fraught and often divisive, “American Sniper” has managed to steer clear of major controversy. The film treads a narrow line, depicting Kyle as a patriot driven by an unquestioning love of country while also showing the damage combat wreaks on him and his family. 

Depending on the political lens one views it through, it could either be seen as a patriotic, if not downright jingoistic, tale of an American warrior (film critic David Edelstein called it "a Republican platform movie") or a story about the heavy burdens borne by those who serve their country and their families.

“This is not a political film,” Kroll said. “No matter what your politics are, the horrors of war and the toll it takes on the soldiers and their families — that’s something everybody can connect to emotionally.”

In rolling out the film, Warner Bros. has taken particular care to target members of the military and their families through grassroots outreach to military bases, veterans organizations, and ROTC programs. 

But there is one group that, though an obvious constituency for a movie called “American Sniper,” Warner Bros. has not specifically targeted in its marketing: gun enthusiasts.

Kyle was himself a proud member of the National Rifle Association, and last May, just three months after he was shot and killed on a gun range by a fellow veteran, his widow, Taya, gave an impassioned speech at an NRA convention in Houston praising the organization for defending the right to bear arms. "America needs people like you who are willing to stand up and fight," she said. At the time of his death, Kyle was finishing work on a book called "American Gun: A History of the U.S. in Ten Firearms."

Asked about any specific outreach to gun enthusiasts, though, Kroll said simply, “We’re not doing that. [This movie] is not about guns.”

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