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Clint Eastwood's American Sniper is smashing records at the North American box office, where it topped Friday's chart with $30.5 million from 3,555 theaters for a debut in the $75 million-$80 million range over the long Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, well ahead of expectations.
That would mark the largest opening of all time for the month of January, as well as one of the top grosses ever for a non-tentpole, much less an R-rated, modern-day war film.
Earning a coveted A+ CinemaScore in every category, Eastwood's movie is galvanizing moviegoers in both red states and blue states. It is expanding nationwide after nabbing six Oscar nominations on Thursday, including best picture and best actor (Bradley Cooper). Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow partnered on Sniper, based on the real-life story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle and set over the course of the war in Iraq.
American Sniper first debuted Christmas Day in four theaters in Los Angeles, New York and Dallas (Kyle was from Texas). The $60 million movie, earning nearly $4 million in its limited run, continues to be unique in appealing to both art house audiences as well as more politically conservative moviegoers.
To date, Gran Torino ($29.5 million) is Eastwood's top opening as a director, while Kevin Hart's Ride Along, released a year ago on the same weekend, boasts the top opening for January with a three-day debut of $41.5 million. Its four-day take was $48.6 million.
Once again taking advantage of the MLK holiday, Hart returns to theaters this weekend in The Wedding Ringer, from Screen Gems. In an unexpected development, the R-rated comedy is finding itself in a close race with family film Paddington for the No. 2 spot (Sniper is no doubt taking adults away from Hart's movie).
Wedding Ringer placed No. 2 Friday with $7 million from 3,003 theaters for a projected four day debut of $23 million-$24 million, the best showing for an R-rated comedy opening in January. However, it won't match the $27.8 million debut of Hart's About Last Night over Valentine's Day and President Day weekend in February 2014. That movie was likewise rated R, while Ride Along was rated PG-13.
Hart stars opposite Josh Gad in Wedding Ringer, which cost a modest $23 million to make and earned a promising A- CinemaScore.
Paddington came in No. 3 Friday with $4.7 million from 3,303 locations, but will gain strength on Saturday as families become available. Like Wedding Ringer, Paddington is expected to gross between $23 million and $24 million for the four-day weekend, a victory for The Weinstein Co., which had originally intended to open the film on Christmas Day.
Earning an A CinemaScore, the critically acclaimed British film, based on the iconic bear, has already launched in the U.K. and other foreign markets, grossing an outstanding $122.2 million to date (TWC only has U.S. rights).
Also opening this weekend is Legendary's Blackhat, director Michael Mann's big-budget action-thriller about a cyberattack on worldwide banking systems that the U.S. and China try to stop.
Despite its topicality in light of the hacking of Sony (reportedly by North Korea) and the star power of Chris Hemsworth, Blackhat is quickly proving to be the first box-office bomb of 2015 after receiving a dismal C- CinemaScore. The action thriller may not even clear $5 million in its four-day debut after grossing $2.6 million from 2,562 theaters, a major stumble considering its $70 million production budget. Universal is distributing Blackhat for Legendary per their partnership. Tang Wei, Viola Davis, Holt McCallany and Wang Leehom also star.
American Sniper is among a number of awards contenders that could enjoy a box-office boost. On the heels of Julianne Moore's best actress win at the Golden Globes for Still Alice, Sony Pictures Classics is opening the Alzheimer's drama this weekend in 13 theaters in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
Ava DuVernay's Selma, heading into its second weekend in nationwide release, is another Oscar contender hoping for a box-office bump. It also hopes to benefit from the MLK holiday.
Selma is poised to come in No. 5 over the holiday weekend with a four-day gross in the $10 million range from 2,235 theaters, bringing its domestic total north of $27 million through Monday. Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment and Oprah Winfrey produced the drama, starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King. Jr. Paramount is distributing the film in North America.
Nabbing eight Oscar nominations, TWC's The Imitation Game will grow its domestic cume to north of $51.2 million through Sunday after hearty weekend earnings of roughly $8 million from 1,611 theaters. The biopic, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and now in its eighth weekend, is poised to come in No. 7.
Back in the top five, Fox holdover Taken 3, starring Liam Neeson, will take the No. 4 spot with an estimated four-day gross just north of $17 million from 3,594 locations, putting its 10-day domestic total at a strong $66 million or more.
Jan. 17, 7:45 a.m. Updated with Friday numbers.