Forecast: 'Sniper' Sets Sights on January Record
Friday AM Update: American Sniper earned a massive $5.3 million from Thursday night shows beginning at 7 p.m. That's over three times as much as Lone Survivor and Taken 3 made during their late Thursday shows ($1.5 million each).

That number may be inflated a bit by the fact that Sniper scored six Oscar nominations—including Best Picture—earlier in the day. Still, it's a clear sign that there's huge demand for this movie right now; it would be shocking if this fell short of setting a new January record ($41.5 million).

Director Clint Eastwood
Forecast: Over the long Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, three brand-new movies—The Wedding Ringer, Paddington and Blackhat—are opening nationwide. However, it's likely that all three of those trail American Sniper, which is expanding to 3,555 locations following an exceptional three-week run in limited release.

In those three weeks, the Clint Eastwood war drama earned $3.4 million from just four locations. In each of its weekends so far, it averaged over $140,000 per-theater; to put that in perspective, only two other live-action movies have ever done that on a single weekend (The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Master). While success in limited release doesn't necessarily guarantee a movie's mainstream appeal, the extraordinary level at which this has performed can't be discounted, either.

Leading up to the nationwide release, Warner Bros. has executed a highly effective marketing campaign. The effort started with an attention-grabbing teaser trailer centered around one tense scene in a war zone; much of the marketing since then has also focused on the movie's nail-biting action sequences.

At the same time, American Sniper is being positioned as more than just a war movie, with plenty of previews centering around a heartbreaking phone call between the lead character and his wife. The line "I'm ready to come home" goes a long way toward humanizing a soldier who may otherwise be somewhat unappealing (is it a good thing to have the most recorded kills in U.S. history?).

It also helps that that character is played by Bradley Cooper, who is arguably one of the most popular actors working right now. Cooper is coming off receiving Oscar nominations in two massively successful David O. Russell movies (Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle), and he also recently delivered memorable voice work as Rocket Raccoon in this Summer's Guardians of the Galaxy. Earlier today, Cooper secured his third Oscar nomination in as many years for his work in Sniper. The movie received five other nominations, including one for Best Picture.

American Sniper arrives at a time when audiences seem to be comfortable watching movies about our recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—particularly ones focused on the individuals on the ground instead of the muddy, divisive politics behind the conflicts. Zero Dark Thirty and Lone Survivor opened around the same time in 2013 and 2014, respectively, and each went on to earn over $90 million.

On its opening weekend last year, Lone Survivor opened to $37.8 million. Fandango is reporting that Sniper is out-selling Survivor, which suggests that Sniper could be on its way to over $40 million this weekend. It could even wind up out-grossing last year's Ride Along, which holds the January opening weekend record with $41.5 million.

The cast of The Wedding Ringer
Speaking of Ride Along: that movie's star Kevin Hart returns to Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend with R-rated comedy The Wedding Ringer, which will be playing in over 3,000 theaters.

Marketing for the movie has been centered almost entirely around Hart, who recent commercials refer to as "the biggest name in comedy." While that point is up for debate, Hart's ability to get butts in seats is most certainly not: just last year, he starred in three movies that opened north of $25 million (Ride Along, About Last Night and Think Like a Man Too). Hart has a huge, very loyal fan base that he connects with directly via social media: he has 10 million followers on Instagram, and has been endlessly promoting the movie on that platform over the past few months.

Can The Wedding Ringer match Hart's 2014 titles with a $25-million-plus opening? Maybe not. Star power tends to only go so far with comedies: for a movie to really connect, it needs a strong premise and previews that have a few memorable jokes. While The Wedding Ringer's trailers mostly fit the bill, recent commercials seem overly reliant on Hart's name (some go as far as repeating it on screen more than once, just in case you missed it the first time). It also doesn't help that the movie is rated R, which will keep some of Hart's younger fans away from theaters; 46 percent of Ride Along's opening weekend audience was under 25, which is a figure that probably won't be replicated this weekend.

Ultimately, look for The Wedding Ringer to wind up somewhere between $20 and $30 million for the four-day weekend.

Continued with a look at 'Paddington,' 'Blackhat,' 'Spare Parts' and 'Foxcatcher,' along with official weekend predictions >>

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