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What’s Behind the Recent Box Office Hot Streak

It could have been a very bleak January and February for the movie business but for the arrival of “American Sniper” and “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

The two box office Atlases have lofted ticket sales and admissions up roughly 10% above the same period a year ago, silencing industry sages who expected the year would get off to a rough start. “American Sniper” has generated $307.7 million since opening in wide release last month, while “Fifty Shades of Grey” became the biggest debut in February history when it bowed to an astounding four-day total of $93 million.

In the process, the pair have proved that big movies come in many stripes, reconfiguring the DNA of the typical blockbuster.

That’s good news for films such as “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Furious 7,” which are steering clear of the crowded summer in favor of spring.

“Our business can succeed year round,” says Dan Fellman, domestic distribution chief at Warner Bros., the studio behind “American Sniper.” “Almost every time we place a big movie in what is traditionally called an off period, we’ve been pleased with the result.”

It used to be that late winter, spring and early fall were considered theatrical dumping grounds, but the success of “Sniper” and “Fifty Shades,” as well as such hits as “Gravity” ($716.4 million worldwide) and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” ($714.8 million) has removed the stigma. That flexibility is going to become increasingly important, with Disney and Warner Bros. scheduling their superhero tentpoles years into the future, monopolizing prime release dates.

Part of the reason “American Sniper” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” were able to break out in such dramatic fashion is that they cater to parts of the moviegoing public that are sometimes neglected. The patriotic elements of “American Sniper” resonated in red states, while “Fifty Shades” made for a perfect girls night out or Valentine’s-date picture.

“They appeal to very distinct segments of the audience,” says Gerry Lopez, CEO of AMC Entertainment.

Meanwhile, “Paddington” and “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water” pulled in family crowds, while “The Wedding Ringer” and “Taken 3” offered something for comedy fans and action lovers.

“The lesson for success is always the same,” notes National Assn. of Theatre Owners’ spokesman Patrick Corcoran. “You’ve got to have a mix of movies.”

Even though business is booming, observers caution that the road ahead looks rocky. March brings a live-action “Cinderella,” a sequel to “Divergent,” sci-fi adventure “Chappie” and DWA’s “Home.” But last year’s March releases included $100 million-plus grossers “300: Rise of an Empire,” “Noah,” “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” and the first “Divergent.”

Says Chad Beynon, a media analyst with Macquarie Securities, “It all comes down to some fairly untested franchises.”

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