Box office preview: 'Divergent' faces off against 'Muppets Most Wanted'

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The 2014 box office, already up 8 percent from last year, is heating up as Divergent stares down Muppets Most Wanted, both of which open in over 3,000 theaters this weekend. But, the YA adaptation looks to be the clear frontrunner and it would not surprise if it doubled the Muppets’ opening returns.

Divergent is one of the first big-budget films of 2014 to target a primarily female audience after weeks of expensive, male-targeted fare. The interest seems to be there for a big opening weekend, too. Beyond the popularity of the books, Fandango is reporting that Divergent accounts for more than 80 percent of its pre-sales. But, it also has a lot to live up to thanks to the unrealistic precedents set by franchises like The Hunger Games and Twilight, where anything under a $70 million opening could be seen as a disappointment.

Here’s how things might play out:

1. Divergent — $60 million
Lionsgate’s Summit Entertainment is set to release Divergent in over 3,900 locations (346 of which are IMAX), Friday, with select screenings Thursday night. Adapted from Veronica Roth’s hugely popular series, Divergent imagines a future, dystopian Chicago that’s divided into factions that govern personalities and values. The teenage Tris (Shailene Woodley) is a divergent, meaning she doesn’t fit into a single faction and is considered a threat to the stability of the society. Divergent has been heavily marketed since a preview at Comic-Con and a trailer that debuted in front of Catching Fire. Overall, critics have not been kind to the film. At press time its Rotten Tomatoes score was at a 27 percent. EW’s Owen Gleiberman was not one of the naysayers, though. In his B+ review he wrote: “The director, Neil Burger (the fanciful craftsman who made Limitless and The Illusionist), keeps you invested, staging a rise-of-the-savior-heroine plot so that it seems less ritualistic than it does in the Hunger Games films.” Divergent begins its international push in April.

2. Muppets Most Wanted — $23 million
Disney’s follow-up to their 2011 Muppets relaunch meets up with the gang as Kermit, mistaken for an infamous lookalike criminal, is shipped off to a Siberian prison, while the rest fall under the spell of an ill-intentioned manager (played by Ricky Gervais). The first film pulled in $29.2 million in its first 3-day weekend in theaters over Thanksgiving (it opened wide on a Wednesday). This take, which cost an estimated $55 million to make, opens in 3,194 theaters and should see an opening in the low-to-mid $20 millions. EW’s Chris Nashawaty gave the film a B and wrote: “The songs are infectious, but the rest (despite turns by Tina Fey and Ty Burrell) lacks some of the gang’s usual feel-good joy.”

3. Mr. Peabody and Sherman – $15 million
Thanks to good reviews and continued buzz, DreamWorks Animation’s Mr. Peabody and Sherman topped the box office last weekend, falling a modest 32.3 percent from its debut at No. 2. With the increased competition of Muppets Most Wanted, Mr. Peabody could see another 35 to 40 percent drop.

4. 300: Rise of an Empire – $11 million
The stylish, bloody sequel is poised for another big drop in week three, likely in the 50 percent range. As of Mar. 19, the domestic total was at $83.7 million. For comparison, by the close of the third weekend, the first film had brought in nearly $161.7 million domestically.

5. Need for Speed – $10 million
After debuting in third place last weekend, the Aaron Paul-starrer could fall 45 to 50 percent in its second weekend in theaters, unless word-of-mouth buzz from opening weekend audiences proves significant. The $66 million car pic may be skidding domestically, but international audiences seem to be making up  for that with over $45.6 million in earnings to date

In the speciality box office world, the 1970s-set New York crime thriller (starring Clive Owen, Zoe Saldana, Billy Crudup, and Mila Kunis) Blood Ties opens in 25 theaters, as does Lars von Trier’s provocative Nymphomaniac: Volume One. Jason Bateman’s spelling bee comedy Bad Words also expands after a limited opening last weekend.

Check back at EW.com this weekend for estimates and analysis.

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