Box office preview: Can 'Noah' build an opening of biblical proportions?

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After months of hand wringing and controversy, Darren Aronofsky’s CGI-happy Noah finally hits theaters this weekend.

Boasting an all-star cast, a patina of prestige and a wide release, there’s no doubt that the epic will open in first place. But coming on the heels of last weekend’s surprise success story God’s Not Dead, the Christian film that opened in fourth place at $9.2 million from just 780 screens, the question of the weekend is whether faith-based audiences will turn out to see just what Aronofsky has done with the story.

This weekend also provides a lot of interesting fodder to analyze, including Divergent‘s ability to hold its own after a robust, fan-driven opening weekend, whether or not The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s limited-release triumphs will translate into a mainstream hit, and how successful Pantelion’s grassroots Cesar Chavez marketing will be when it comes to getting audiences in the theaters.

Here’s how things might play out.

1. Noah — $35 million
Opening on approximately 3,500 screens (341 of which are IMAX) with the support of good reviews (74 percent Rotten Tomatoes), Noah is poised to be the clear winner this weekend. Starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, and Anthony Hopkins, the film tells the tale of Noah and his quest to build an ark to save his family from an imminent, apocalyptic flood. Rated PG-13, Noah is expected to draw an older audience, who typically aren’t known for ushering in massive opening weekends, but often help films have a longer, more consistent box office shelf life. Fandango reports that the film is making up more than 50 percent of its weekend ticket sales. Analysts are predicting a $30 million-plus weekend. As far as recent Bible films go, it will be higher than Son of God‘s opening last month ($25.6 million), but it does not look like the faith-based crowd will rally around this the way they did with last weekend’s indie Christian film God’s Not Dead. Though a $30 million-plus debut is decent, it is worth remembering that, Noah was an expensive venture for Paramount. Estimates place its budget around $125 million. Long-range forecasts estimated a much higher opening for the film ($47 million) and predicted that it would reach $144 million domestically by the end of its run, but the hype seems to have cooled recently, tempered by reports that Christian audiences were not thrilled with the interpretation. Internationally, Noah has been performing very well. It opened last weekend in Korea to $8.3 million and in Mexico to $5.7 million and will be hitting Russia and Australia on Thursday.

2. Divergent – $27 million
After a great opening weekend fueled by enthusiastic fans, Summit’s YA adaptation could drop in the 50 percent range. Divergent will fly past its modest $85 million budget and should hit $100 million in no time.

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel —  $11 million
Wes Anderson’s latest effort more than triples its theater count this weekend after a stellar limited run. With incredible reviews (91 percent Rotten Tomatoes) and continued buzz, the stylish hotel caper could carve out a significant placement in the top five now that Fox Searchlight has it in just under 1,000 theaters.

4. Muppets Most Wanted — $10 million
Kermit might have foundered out of the gates, but Muppets Most Wanted is still the only new kids movie on the market till Rio 2 opens April 11. Expect a 45 percent-plus drop for the star-packed comedy.

5. Sabotage — $7 million
Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as a DEA agent out to take down a dangerous drug cartel in the R-rated action pic, which also stars Sam Worthington, Josh Holloway, and Joe Manganiello. Training Day scribe David Ayer (who also wrote and directed End of Watch) wrote and directed the pic, which, so far, has inspired mostly terrible reviews. Open Road Films is releasing the QED-financed and -produced pic in 2,486 locations, and it’s unlikely that it will bring in more than $10 million. The box office has not been kind to Schwarzenegger of late. His last two films opened under $10 million as well — Escape Plan went on to earn only $25 million while The Last Stand peaked at a dismal $12 million domestically.

In limited release, Pantelion’s Diego Luna-directed Cesar Chavez hits 664 locations, Sony Classics rolls the cult action sequel The Raid 2 out to seven locations, and Jason Bateman’s raunchy comedy Bad Words expands to 600 locations. God’s Not Dead also expands this weekend.

Check back in to EW.com this weekend for estimates and analysis.

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