How did "Lone Survivor" outperform expectations by so much? Here are some possible reasons it became such a huge hit.
Based-in-fact: Unlike most movies about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this one was based on a true story. Plus, Marcus Luttrell (the Navy SEAL played by Mark Wahlberg in the movie) turned his harrowing story into a best-selling book, so there was a fair amount of audience pre-awareness before "Lone Survivor" went wide.
Quality: Despite mixed reviews, the movie was clearly good enough to play the festival circuit this past fall, and good enough for Universal to release it in a handful of theaters in the last week of 2013 so that it would be eligible for Oscars and other awards. So far, it hasn't earned much awards love, except for a nomination from the Writers Guild of America, but it still carries an air of prestige that a typical wartime shoot-em-up does not.
Timing: The pattern -- of limited release in time for awards consideration, then wide release in January -- has proved commercially successful for other war movies in recent years, from "Black Hawk Down" to "Zero Dark Thirty." The strategy seems to be working again for "Lone Survivor."
Mark Wahlberg: Besides being a bona fide box office draw most of the time, Wahlberg knows how to release a movie in the dead zone of January. He did well a couple Januaries ago with "Contraband" (which opened in 2012 with $24.3 million), less well last January with "Broken City" ($8.3 million). Plus, he's a tireless self-promoter and a canny producer.
Peter Berg: The director's last movie was the flop "Battleship," which was actually not a terrible action flick but which was perceived as a huge bomb because it was so expensive. With "Lone Survivor" (which reportedly cost just a modest $40 million), he seems to have redeemed himself, proving he can do both quality drama and action spectacle on a budget.
Word-of-Mouth: The movie earned an A+ at CinemaScore, meaning Friday night's audiences were poised to give the film the highest possible recommendation.
Appeal to Both Sexes: Exit polling suggested that "Lone Survivor" had pretty much equal appeal to both men and women. Fan love for Wahlberg may account for most of that; in any case, it's a rarity for an action movie or a war movie. It certainly wasn't the case with this weekend's other big action movie, "The Legend of Hercules," starring Kellan Lutz. Lutz doesn't have much of a male fanbase, while his female fanbase (from his role in the "Twilight" films) doesn't really want to see him cracking skulls in a movie like this.
Lack of Competition: "Hercules" was the only new wide-release movie this week, so "Lone Survivor," which had nearly 800 more screens, didn't really have to worry about "Hercules" stealing its action thunder. As it turned out, "Hercules" opened in fourth place and earned an estimated $8.6 million, about what the experts predicted.
So at least the pundits got something right this weekend.