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How Angelina Jolie’s ‘Unbroken’ Became a Christmas Smash

On paper, “Unbroken,” the story of a bombardier who survives a crash in the Pacific Ocean only to be tortured by his Japanese captors, doesn’t sound much like a Christmas movie.

However, by emphasizing the inspirational elements of the incredible true story and director Angelina Jolie’s work behind the camera, the account of Louis Zamperini’s travails and ultimate triumph became one of the holiday’s biggest openers.

“At this time of year stories about faith and how strong the human spirit is do huge numbers,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations.

Bock compares “Unbroken” to “The Blind Side,” which also drew crowds in the big cities and Middle America by emphasizing uplift. “Unbroken” debuted to $31.7 million over the weekend and has made $47.3 million since opening on Christmas, stunning box office prognosticators who had expected it to make $10 million less than it collected. The oft-repeated mantra in trailers and other promotional materials, “If you can take it, you can make it,” gave the film a quasi-religious, redemptive aura that made it seem seasonally appropriate.

“It’s an inspirational film that played to all the quadrants,” said Nikki Rocco, Universal’s distribution chief. “The studio did an incredible marketing job telling the story of this hero.”

But “The Blind Side” had Sandra Bullock, while “Unbroken” is grounded by newcomer Jack O’Connell. That left Jolie to do the heavy lifting when it came to promoting the picture on “Today” and on the cover of magazines such as Variety. After “Maleficent” became the third biggest film of the year on a global basis, “Unbroken’s” success helps solidify her status as one of the industry’s preeminent movie stars — something that had been questioned given her four-year absence from screens.

“Angeline Jolie, along with Louis Zamperini, is the biggest star of the movie,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with Rentrak. “Her name on the film raised awareness higher than it otherwise would have been.”

For Jolie, whose previous directing effort, 2011’s Bosnian War drama “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” sank without a trace, “Unbroken” has opened up fresh career avenues.

“Hollywood is not kind to actresses as they age,” Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “Establishing herself as a viable director commercially and creatively is a huge thing for her career.”

Not everything broke “Unbroken’s” way. Reviews were uneven, and the picture was shut out of the Golden Globes, but the film proved critic- and awards-proof at the multiplexes.

It helped, of course, that Laura Hillenbrand’s book of the same name spent more than 180 weeks on the New York Times bestseller hardcover list — a feat that has been surpassed by only three other nonfiction titles.

Likewise, “The Interview’s” cancellation in the wake of terrorist threats and subsequent rebirth as an arthouse release freed up screens for “Unbroken” and the holiday’s other major release, “Into the Woods.” It also left the marketplace without a film geared at adults. That was good news for “Unbroken,” which had an opening weekend crowd that was 62% over the age of 30.

Then there was the nature of Zamperini’s life story. It’s one that begins with a shiftless childhood before segueing to the Olympics, daring aerial missions, a punishing ordeal floating in a life raft in the middle of the ocean and a lengthy stretch in Japanese prison camps.

“It has a bunch of different story threads, and it manages to catch a lot of different people as a result,” said Contrino. “It’s like ‘Forest Gump’ in the way that it hits a lot of different story lines. There’s the World War II stuff, the prison camp element and the sports stuff. It’s like a couple of movies in one.”

Knowing the challenges it faced in marketing a film without a proven star at the height of awards season, Universal started banging the drum early. In a nice bit of corporate synergy, the studio highlighted a lengthy promo that was narrated by Tom Brokaw during sister division NBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics. A month later, the studio brought Jolie to Cinemacon, the annual gathering of exhibitors, to make an extended pitch for the film to theater owners.

“Universal’s unrelenting campaign has a lot to do with its success,” said Bock. “This thing could surpass $100 million. It’s going to have a lot of playability.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Zamperini as a fighter pilot instead of a bombardier. 

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