Darren Aronofsky‘s adaptation of the Old Testament tale surged on Saturday and finished well ahead of expectations that had been tempered by months of negative buzz — mainly from church groups wary of the “Black Swan” director’s edgy style and reports that the film strayed too far from Scripture. Distributor Paramount, which backed the film with New Regency, even added a statement at the beginning of the movie noting that it was a dramatic interpretation.
The surprising showing by “Noah” overshadowed a strong performance by Lionsgate’s young-adult sci-fi tale “Divergent.” The adventure tale starring Shailene Woodley and Theo James finished second with $27.7 million, just a 49 percent drop from its big opening last weekend, and will cross the $100 million mark in the next day or two.
The weekend’s only other wide opener, the Arnold Schwarzenegger action film “Sabotage,” tanked and wound up in seventh place with $5.3 million. That’s the worst opening for the former California governor since he returned to the big screen, behind the debuts of last year’s “Escape Plan” ($9.2 million) and “The Last Stand” ($6.2 million).
“Noah” is the biggest opening ever as a leading man for Russell Crowe, who played the ark builder, ahead of “Robin Hood” ($36 million in 2008) and “Gladiator” ($34.8 million in 2000). And it‘s by far the biggest opening for Aronofsky, who co-wrote the script with Ari Handel, and has never directed a film with a budget anywhere near the $125 million that “Noah” cost to make.
The PG-13-rated “Noah” sailed past pre-release projections, which were in the $35 million range. But the poor “C” CinemaScore that it was given by first-night audiences — 74 percent over the age of 25 and equally split between men and women — demonstrated its polarizing nature. About 63 percent gave it an “A” or “B,” 23 percent gave it a “C” and 14 percent gave it a “D” or “F.”
The critics have been more positive (76 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) on the saga, which co-stars Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Ray Winstone and Anthony Hopkins.
In addition to overcoming criticism from religious groups, Aronofsky and the studio sparred over “Noah.” It was banned in several Middle Eastern countries and the VFX firm that did the effects work lost a bunch of money.
But while the controversy certainly raised awareness, that wasn’t the whole story, according to Paramount’s head of distribution Don Harris.
“This movie was always meant to be provocative, and it was, but this really was a spectacular piece of filmmaking and that’s what really made it work,” Harris told TheWrap.
The Biblical epic got a big boost from its 341 Imax locations, which delivered $6.2 million, or 14 percent of its gross. Eight of the top ten theaters for “Noah” were Imax.
“Noah” is making a splash overseas, where it is available in 3D. It posted the best opening ever for a non-sequel in Russia with $17.2 million, and took in $33.6 million from 22 markets this weekend to raises its foreign total to $51 million in two weeks.
Two kids movies battled for third place. “The Muppets Most Wanted,” back for its second week, beat out DreamWorks Animation’s “Mr. Peabody & Sherman,” which is in its fourth week.
Disney’s “Muppets” sequel was off just 31 percent from its opening weekend and could hit $11.7 million to raise its domestic total to $33.5 million. “Peabody” will cross $100 million domestically some time this week, after holding strongly to bring in $9.5 million, just 19 percent down from last weekend.
Three movies that were in limited release went wide with varying degrees of success.
Fox Searchlight added 673 theaters for Wes Anderson’s R-rated ensemble comedy “Grand Budapest Hotel” and it brought in $8.8 million from 977 sites to finish fifth. That’s a 30 percent gain from last week and its domestic haul is up to $24 million after a month in release.
“Grand Budapest” averaged roughly $9,000 per screen, and for the first time wasn’t the film with the highest gross per theaters. That went to “Noah,” which averaged $12,430 on 3,567 screens.
“God’s Not Dead,” Freestyle Releasing’s low-budget drama targeting the faith-based crowd, brought in $8.2 million after expanding into 1 ,164 theaters for its second weekend. That’s just an 11 percent drop from last week, and it’s taken in more than $21 million in two weeks.
“Bad Words,” the dark, R-rated comedy about a guy crashing a kids spelling bee that was directed by and stars Jason Bateman, couldn’t crack the top ten. It took in $2.7 million after Focus Features added 755 theaters in its third week.
Warner Bros.’ sword-and-sandals sequel, “300: Rise of an Empire,” passed the $100 million mark and finished ninth with $4.3 million. That was just behind Disney’s hot-car video game adaptation “Need for Speed” and just ahead of Universal’s Liam Neeson thriller “Non-Stop,” which raised its domestic total to $85 million with $4 million over the three days.
“Cesar Chavez,”the biopic about the iconic labor leader from Pantelion Films and Participant Media, opened to $3 million from 664 theaters. That’s a decent $4,518 per screen average, but it’s clear the drama isn’t going to match the breakout success of “Instructions Not Included,” last year’s Pantelion family comedy that became the highest-grossing Spanish-language film ever in the U.S. with $44 million.