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Can Box Office Help ‘American Sniper,’ ‘Unbroken’ Win Over Academy Voters?

A movie doesn’t need to be a box office hit to win an Academy Award — “The Hurt Locker” famously topped out at $17 million domestically, yet still beat “Avatar,” the highest-grossing film of all time. But strong ticket sales can make a movie difficult to ignore.

Both “American Sniper” and “Unbroken” were highly anticipated titles that took a hit when they were shut out at the SAG and Golden Globe Awards in December. Both opened on Christmas Day, though “Unbroken” went wide in more than 3,000 theaters, while “Sniper” opened in just four. And both have exceeded expectations with strong showings.

Given the subject matter and talent, it didn’t ever feel like the Academy would be heavily influenced by “Unbroken’s” mixed reviews. But with $45 million in four days, the crowdpleaser looks to be back on track for a best picture nom.

Perhaps even more impressive was the debut of “Sniper,” featuring a heralded performance from Bradley Cooper as U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. In its opening weekend, the film averaged more than $200,000 per theater, the best-ever opening for a Christmas release on 10 screens or fewer. Perhaps even more encouraging is the A+ Cinemascore the film landed, showing “Sniper” is in it for the long haul.

Cooper has struggled to break into the overcrowded actor race, particularly as almost all of his competitors’ films have already opened and had time to make an impression. With ballots now out, and the film fresh in theaters and the minds of voters, he’s in a great position to make a run. In addition, with director Clint Eastwood beloved by the Academy, box office success might be just the push needed to get the film firmly in the race.

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