American Sniperthe biopic directed by Clint Eastwood, shot to the top of the holiday weekend’s specialty newcomers, easily setting a Christmas record as it became one of 2014’s biggest limited releases. The year’s most unexpected and controversial limited release, The Interviewreported $2.8 million in 331 theaters, for a solid four-day theater average of $8,459, while Martin Luther King biopic Selma had a strong debut with $48K per theater.

American Sniper, which stars Bradley Cooper as the U.S. military’s most lethal sniper, scored the largest Christmas opening ever for any title in fewer than 10 theaters, with a jaw-dropping, $212,500 4-day per-theater average.

The InterviewAfter nearly a month in the glare of international controversy and techno-political intrigue, Sony’s The Interview opened in an accidental day-and-date experiment, with solid numbers in 331 U.S. art-house theaters and on-demand through services such as Microsoft’s Xbox Live, YouTube Movies and the Google Play Store, as well as Sony-controlled SeeTheInterview.com.

Paramount bowed Selma in 19 locations with a solid $48K 4-day PTA, while TWC added more than 700 venues for its awards hopeful The Imitation Gameanother biopic and this one about cryptology pioneer Alan Turing, in its fifth weekend coming in with a robust $14,735 4-day average.

selma-movie-posterAmerican Sniper dazzled this weekend with an $850K gross in just four venues over the long Christmas weekend. The title’s four-day average also puts it among 2014’s biggest openers among limited releases.

From Friday to Sunday, American Sniper grossed an estimated $610K, giving it a $152,510 average. In a straight comparison, that would mean Sniper is the year’s second-biggest specialty opener, just behind Searchlight’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which had a three-day $202,792 PTA when it opened in early March in four theaters. The Imitation Game opened with a $482K three-day gross in 4 locations last month for a $120,518 PTA. Searchlight’s Birdman grossed over $424K in its October debut, averaging just over $106K.

The numbers certainly bode well for Sniper, which will go wide Jan. 16. The feature heads into the New Year with an A+ CinemaScore, making the grade with both males and females and people over and under 25 years-old.

Warner Bros. also touted individual numbers at its four locations when reporting Sunday, noting that the film’s $326K gross at The Cinerama Dome in LA ($81,500 average per day) was the largest opening for an exclusive run in the venue’s history.

AmericanSniper posterIn New York, the film played both Union Square and Lincoln Plaza, grossing $137K and $141K respectively. And in Dallas’ Northpark 15 (the film’s subject was a Texan), American Sniper grossed $246K ($61,500 average per day), which was also the largest opening for an exclusive run in the location’s history.

“The results are absolutely staggering,” said Dan Fellman, Warner Bros.’ president of domestic distribution. “To break records in a theater like the Cinerama Dome which has played the best exclusive runs, is a very special thing. And in Dallas, it has become a cultural phenomenon.”

Sniper has benefited from a multi-pronged convergence of factors that catapulted the title into its record-breaking bow, Fellman said, and that should help propel the film in wide release next month.

“I think it’s the perfect storm,” Fellman said. “You have a film that is the perfect vehicle for Clint Eastwood. Bradley Cooper has emerged as one of the finest American actors this century. He’s getting fantastic reviews in The Elephant Man on Broadway and Sienna Miller is great. I think the combination of the three of them and the holiday etc. showed up in the box office.”

Eastwood’s last December limited release was 2008’s Gran Torino, which added theaters through Christmas before going wide in January. Warner Bros. debuted it in just 6 theaters on Dec. 12, grossing $271,720 for a $45,287 per theater average, adding a dozen locations the following week and another 65 theaters over the Christmas weekend.

Eastwood’s 2006 film Letters From Iwo Jima, which closely followed Flags Of Our Fathers, bowed in five theaters, grossing over $89K for a $17,819 PTA. That film went on to cume over $13.75M (Flags opened in 1,876 theaters, averaging $5,461, going on to cume $33.6M). His 2004 release Million Dollar Baby bowed in 8 locations grossing nearly $180K. The Warner Bros. film starring Eastwood and Hilary Swank went on to cume $100.049M.

Geopolitics, the 24-hour news cycle and an insecure young dictator proved to be a winning combination to blast Seth Rogen/James Franco starrer The Interview into the cultural zeitgeist the past couple of weeks. CNN and others are showing audiences singing patriotic songs as The Interview made its way into theaters.

In 331 locations, the action-comedy grossed $2.8M over the four-day weekend, averaging $8,459. Sony noted sell-outs across the board with the Alamo Drafthouse saying the feature sold out most of its 19 locations. On Christmas day, it grossed $1 million, then added $735K Friday, $615K Saturday and an estimated $461K Sunday. Given the unprecedented attention the title received, one must suspect a bulk of the film’s viewers are seeing the title via digital platforms, where it topped sales charts.

“The No. 1 priority of our unconventional release was to give people the chance to see The Interview,” said Rory Bruer, Sony’s worldwide distribution president, on Sunday. “While this is a completely unprecedented circumstance without proper comparisons, we are very pleased with how it is doing both theatrically, where we are seeing numerous sell-outs across the country, and online, where it remains at the top of many charts. Most gratifying of all is hearing how people banded together to watch the film and have a good time.”

Selma movieSelma opened with limited bows in a host of urban and art-house locations Christmas weekend. The film by Sundance-winner Ava DuVernay grossed $912K in 19 theaters over the four-day period for a $48K PTA.

“Selma did great. We wanted to open the movie on 19 screens in diverse [locations] with a real mix of theaters,” said Paramount’s Megan Colligan, Paramount’s worldwide distribution and marketing president. “The film played consistently across [the board]. Atlanta and Washington, D.C. played well, which is important. You can open well in New York and L.A. and think you’re off and running, but then realize later you have just an NYC and L.A. movie.”

Paramount said last year’s bow of Saving Mr. Banks, which opened in the holiday window last year (on Dec. 13) in 15 theaters. That film grossed an initial $413K for a three-day $27,558 PTA. It later went wide and eventually cumed $83.3 million. The film has momentum as it gets set to go wide next month with a 100% Rotten Tomatoes score to date. Selma, which is nominated for 4 Golden Globes including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director, had a $20 million budget. Colligan said Sunday that the studio plans to open the title in Chicago, probably next week, and expand in D.C. and other markets before going wide Jan. 9.

In other openers, SPC bowed Leviathanwhich has been shortlisted for the Best Foreign-Language Oscar, in 2 theaters. Leviathan grossed $15,156 Friday to Sunday, averaging $7,578.

The Imitation GameIFC Films opened another highly touted foreign film, the Dardenne Brothers‘ French-language Two Days, One Night, starring Marion Cotillard, in a pair of locations, grossing $30,580 ($15,290 PTA).

The Weinstein Company added 713 locations for awards hopeful The Imitation Game’s 5th frame, maintaining gusto in its hefty expansion. The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley and grossed just north of $11 million in 747 theaters, averaging a very healthy $14,735, placing eighth in overall box office.

Erik Lomis, TWC’s president of theatrical distribution, noted Sunday that the company’s 2010 Oscar winner The King’s Speech grossed over $4.48 million when it expanded by 657 theaters to 700 locations on Christmas weekend. The Imitation Game‘s 3-day Friday-to-Sunday estimate is more than $7.9 million ($10,616 PTA). “If I can get anywhere near [The King’s Speech gross], I’m in,” said Lomis. “In our exit polls, 97% checked the top two boxes and 88% gave a ‘definite recommend’…The picture is going to be around for a long, long time.”

TWC plans to expand The Imitation Game into 1,800 to 2,000 locations on Golden Globe weekend.

NEW
American Sniper (Warner Bros.) NEW [4 Theaters] Weekend $850K, Average $212,500 (4-day)
The Interview (Sony Pictures) NEW [331 Theaters] Weekend $2.8M, Average $8,459 (4-day)
Leviathan (Sony Pictures Classics) NEW [2 Theaters] Weekend $15,156, Average $7,578, Cume $22,986 (Wed. open)
Selma (Paramount) NEW [19 Theaters] Weekend $590K (3-day), Average $31,053 (3-day), Average $48K (4-day), Cume $912K (4-day)
Two Days, One Night (IFC Films) NEW [2 Theaters] Weekend $30,580, Average $15,290, Cume $48,220 (Wed. open)

RETURNING/SECOND WEEKEND
A Tale Of Winter (Big World Pictures) Week 2 [1 Theater] Weekend $3,286, Cume $10,437
Mr. Turner (Sony Pictures Classics) Week 2 [5 Theaters] Weekend $251,948, Average $10,498, Cume $493,576 (3-day)
P.K. (UTV) Week 2 [264 Theaters] Weekend $1.75M, Average $6,629, Cume $7,910,429

HOLDOVERS / THIRD+ WEEKENDS
Inherent Vice (Warner Bros.) Week 3 [16 Theaters] Weekend $200K, Average $12,500, Cume $963,996 (3-day)
Wild (Fox Searchlight) Week 4 [1,285 Theaters] Weekend $7.075M, Average $5,506, Cume $16,364,183 (4-day)
The Babadook (IFC Midnight) Week 5 [47 Theaters] Weekend $58,280, Average $1,240, Cume $605,367
The Imitation Game (The Weinstein Company) Week 5 [747 Theaters] Weekend $11.007M, Average $14,735, Cume $14,631,000 (4-day)
Foxcatcher (Sony Pictures Classics) Week 7 [315 Theaters] Weekend $947,489, Average $3,008, Cume $6,147,191 (3-day)
The Homesman (Roadside Attractions/Saban Films) Week 7 [61 Theaters] Weekend $59,765, Average $980, Cume $2,157,224 (3-day)
The Theory Of Everything (Focus Features) Week 8 [736 Theaters] Weekend $1.205M, Average $1,637, Cume $22,368,674
Citizenfour (RADiUS) Week 10 [40 Theaters] Weekend $60,883, Average $1,522, Cume $2,141,794 (4-day)
Birdman (Fox Searchlight) Week 11 [292 Theaters] Weekend $1.1M, Average $3,767, Cume $23,777,586 (4-day)
Whiplash (Sony Pictures Classics) Week 12 [87 Theaters] Weekend $180,295, Average $2,072, Cume $5,457,872 (3-day)
My Old Lady (Cohen Media Group) Week 16 [4 Theaters] Weekend $3,979, Average $995, Cume $3,987,967
Boyhood (IFC Films) Week 25 [26 Theaters] Weekend $36,920, Average $1,420, Cume $24,220,213