Mark Burnett on ‘Son of God’ Box Office: ‘A Billion People Will See it’

But neither he nor the experts know how many will see it this weekend, or if it will challenge “Non-Stop” for No. 1

Reality TV kingpin Mark Burnett isn’t sure how big of a box-office opening “Son of God” will have this weekend. But he has faith in the pared-down movie version of last year’s highly rated History channel miniseries “The Bible” – plenty of it.

“This movie is going to be seen by a billion people over the next three or four years, so a big opening would be great, but this is very much a long-term proposition,” Burnett told TheWrap Wednesday.

The weekend’s other wide opener, Liam Neeson‘s jetliner thriller “Non-Stop,” should land with around $25 million in its debut weekend, say the analysts, enough to knock “The Lego Movie” out of the No. 1 box-office spot that it’s held for the past three weekends.

But “Son of God,” Burnett’s first foray in feature films, is definitely a wild card.

Also read: ‘Son of God’ Review: Bless Me, Surfer Jesus

“It feels like around $12 million, maybe $15 million,” said Chris Aronson, head of distribution at Fox, which is releasing “Son of God” and will have it roughly 3,025 theaters nationwide. “But honestly, because of the faith-based element, we just don’t know, so it wouldn’t shock me if it did $25 million.”

Burnett and his wife Roma Downey have skipped traditional marketing on their passion project, opting instead for a church-driven grassroots campaign designed to pack theaters with true believers. It’s working so far – “Son of God” has already run up $4 million in group and advance sales – and Colorado-based child sponsorship agency Compassion International alone has distributed more than 250,000 advance tickets.

Apple Store Soho Presents: Meet the Filmmakers: "Son Of God"“There’s been nothing conventional about this,” said Burnett, who with his wife barnstormed his way through 40 U.S. cities over the past few months for church screenings of “Son of God.”

“It’s more like networking with all these church leaders, who have become our friends, since we’ve been consulting and working with them on this project for years,” he said. Burnett reached out early to Christian and Jewish leaders, and his film has avoided the controversy that has plagued earlier movies about Christ’s life, “The Last Temptation of Christ” and Mel Gibson‘s “The Passion of the Christ.”

Also read: ‘Son of God': Jewish Leader Hopes Bible Film Will Be ‘Antidote’ to ‘Passion of the Christ’

High-profile pastors Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes are among the couples’ pals who have bought out theaters and given the tickets to their congregations. So have Lori Greiner and Robert Herjavec, two of the regulars on “Shark Tank,” the ABC show which Burnett produces along with “Survivor” and “The Voice.”

“Rick told me that this is the one weekend he’ll forgive his congregation if they miss church,” Burnett said. He was kidding, but it points up what an anomaly “Son of God” is. While most movies do well on Friday night, peak on Saturday and slow down on Sunday, the Sabbath could be the biggest day for “Son of God.”

Exactly how many true believers will be mobilized, and whether “Son of God” will have much appeal beyond its ardent base, is an unknown, however.

“Any time you’re dealing with non-traditional marketing, it throws the tracking for a loop,” said BoxOffice.com vice-president and senior analyst Phil Contrino. He’s projecting an opening in the $15 million range.

Also read: Jesus Is Back on the Big Screen in ‘Son of God’ Trailer (Video)

“Son of God” was the leading ticket seller on both online brokers Fandango and Movietickets.com as of Wednesday, with roughly 30 percent of overall sales. It’s strong on social media, especially Facebook, where its mentions are double those of “Noah,” Paramount’s big-budget Darren Aronofsky-directed Bible tale that will opens on March 28, according to BoxOffice.com.

Contrino wasn’t convinced, however.

“It may be a little bit like a concert film, where you have a very ardent fan base that wants to see it as soon as they possibly can,” said Contrino. “That doesn’t necessarily translate into a huge opening weekend. It’s skewed because of how intense the fan base is, and their desire to go in a group. But the fact is with this one, you just can’t tell.”

The PG-13-rated Son of God” chronicles the life of Jesus, played by Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado, from the Nativity through resurrection and revelation. It was distilled primarily from footage appearing in the original 10-hour miniseries that aired over five days last March, but includes some deleted scenes. Christopher Spencer writes and directs.

Burnett’s billion viewers bet will get a boost when the film rolls out overseas. Relativity International is handling foreign sales for “Son of God” and sold it more than 60 territories. Sun Distributor Group’s is planning a pan-Latin American release on Easter Weekend

Universal’s “Non-Stop” looks like a much safer bet.

non-stop-for-advanceNeeson has emerged as a reliable and bankable action star with recent hits including the two “Taken” movies – which grossed $600 million worldwide — “The Grey” and “Unknown.”

Also read: ‘Non-Stop’ Review: Liam Neeson Kicks Ass on a Plane Full of Red Herrings (Video)

“Non-Stop” is landing on the same Oscar weekend that launched “Taken” with $24.7 million in 2009.

“Non-Stop” reunites Neeson with “Unknown” director Jaume Collet-Serra and producer Joel Silver. The PG-13-rated thriller co-stars Oscar nominee Lupita Nyong’o and Julianne Moore and features Neeson as an air marshal dealing with terror threat on a transatlantic flight. It will be in  3,090 North American theaters.

The tracking and social media have been solid for weeks and it looks like “Non-Stop” will be another mid-range budget success story for Universal, which dominated January with “Lone Survivor” and “Ride Along.” It acquired the U.S. rights to “Non-Stop” for about $13 million.

“We’re excited about this movie,” said Universal distribution chief Nikki Rocco. “We’re seeing a lot of interest from men and women, which doesn’t surprise us, because it really is a fun ride.” She projects an opening between $19 million and $21 million for “Non-Stop.”