Coming into the weekend, the military action drama "Lone Survivor" was expected to take in $20 million to $25 million at the box office — a decent if hardly overwhelming number for a movie that cost about $40 million to make.
But when final numbers came in Monday afternoon, the Universal Pictures release had outperformed even the most optimistic forecasts and nearly made its production costs back: It tallied $37.9 million, the second-biggest opening ever in the month of January.
The movie, which stars Mark Wahlberg, has turned into the first wide-release hit of 2014 and, perhaps more improbably, become a modern wartime film with mass appeal. An adaptation of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell's bestselling 2009 memoir about a deadly mission in the mountains of Afghanistan, "Lone Survivor" is on pace to take in more than $100 million — a mark reached by only three live-action releases in the first quarter of 2013.
A variety of factors helped "Lone Survivor" — written and directed by Hollywood mainstay Peter Berg ("Battleship") — break out at the box office.
Certainly "Lone Survivor" benefited from a marketing push during the college and pro football postseason, whose audience dovetailed closely to the film's.
The movie also had the advantage of a long promotional buildup — Universal debuted the film at Los Angeles' AFI Fest in mid-November — and was able to generate interest off controversial appearances, including a feisty Wahlberg at the AFI screening and a tense interview earlier this month between Luttrell and CNN's Jake Tapper. (Luttrell, a war hero, was a key arrow in Universal's quiver; as studio distribution chief Nikki Rocco said Monday, "We brought him front and center to tell his tale.")
But it was the hybrid subject of "Lone Survivor" — a movie about a politically charged subject that took almost no political point of view — that may have given it the greatest boost.
"What I've found at screenings is that people are reacting to the opportunity to experience what these men went through, to pay their respects," Berg said Monday. "It's a chance for audiences to express their patriotism in a way that doesn't feel political, and we don't have a lot of chances to do that."
Berg said he deliberately suppressed any political leanings in the film to ensure the broadest appeal, and wanted both pro- and antiwar constituencies to come out to see it. "My only interest is that you realize what these men went through, and how 19 of them died."
Movies set among soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have had trouble moving beyond a niche audience. Though it won the Oscar for best picture four years ago, "The Hurt Locker" grossed only $17 million. The SEAL adventure "Act of Valor" notched $70 million in 2012, but that was a fictionalized, episodic film that jumped to various missions around the world and did not focus as heavily on the Taliban or other harsh realities. It also largely avoided the death inherent to this story.
Still, the time that has elapsed since the war on terror's bloodiest battles, with U.S. troops almost entirely out of Iraq and increasingly out of Afghanistan, may make it easier for some to watch a movie about the subject, Berg said. Bolstering his argument is "Lone Survivor's" CinemaScore of A-plus — a rarity for any film, let alone one with elements of bloodshed and death.
Tellingly, "Lone Survivor's" audience was less than half white, according to exit surveys, and more than 30% African American, an anomaly given that it features no major black character. It's a breakdown that more closely resembles the demographics of the men and women who fight wars.
Finally, Hollywood's bid to explicitly capture Middle American audiences often yields mixed results. But "Lone Survivor's" subject matter and tone seemed to hit that sweet spot: Seven of the highest-grossing theaters were located in Texas.
Times staff writer Ryan Faughnder contributed to this report.