"Exodus: Gods and Kings" dominated the box office this weekend, riding past "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1" and meeting expectations with an estimated $24.5-million debut.
The 20th Century Fox biblical epic, directed by Ridley Scott ("Gladiator") and starring Christian Bale as Moses, did not rely on the same base of Christian moviegoers that other religious dramas -- notably "God's Not Dead" and "Noah" -- tapped to find success this year at the U.S. and Canadian box office.
"I know there's been a lot of talk about religious movies and obviously 'Exodus' has a biblical storyline," said Spencer Klein, Fox's senior vice president and general sales manager. "But I think with its pedigree of director and stars … people see this as just a big movie."
Klein said the audience for "Exodus" was broad. An estimated 65% of moviegoers were older than 25, and 54% were male. Like other faith-based films, "Exodus" played well with Latino moviegoers, who made up about 20% of the audience. African Americans also accounted for about 20% of the audience.
"It's clearly a mix of religious audience but also general moviegoers and a pretty impressively diverse audience make-up," Klein said. "I think it's a great indicator for our playability."
But with a lofty $140-million budget, "Exodus" needs to pull in big numbers overseas to become a hit for the studio.
By comparison, Fox's "Son of God," a retelling of the life of Jesus, grossed about $59.7 million in the U.S. and Canada. That film, budgeted at an estimated $22 million, debuted in February to $25.6 million.
Faith Driven Consumer, an advocacy group known for petitioning the A&E network to reinstate "Duck Dynasty" regular Phil Robertson, rated "Exodus" 2.5 stars out of 5.
"Ridley Scott's 'Exodus' represents a strong departure from the Bible and will likely fail to resonate with millions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims," Chris Stone, founder of Faith Driven Consumer, said in a statement. "Ultimately, the movie misses the central point of the story."
The film earned a B-minus rating from audience polling firm CinemaScore and a 27% positive rating from review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
In its fourth weekend, Lionsgate's "Mockingjay" fell to second while adding $13.2 million to its domestic haul. The latest "Hunger Games" franchise film has grossed $277.4 million in the U.S. and Canada, the second-highest of the year, behind the $332.3-million domestic haul for "Guardians of the Galaxy." "Mockingjay" crossed the $600-million mark worldwide, helping Lionsgate to surpass the $1-billion mark internationally for the third year in a row.
Fox's "Penguins of Madagascar" took third place over the weekend, adding $7.3 million to its haul of about $60 million to date.
Meanwhile, Paramount Pictures' "Top Five" opened to a solid $7.2 million in 979 locations, putting it in fourth place for the weekend. Critics and audiences have lauded the Chris Rock film, which the studio acquired for $12 million at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, where it premiered.
"From a profitability standpoint, it's a great deal for us," said Megan Colligan, Paramount's president of domestic marketing and distribution. "We love this movie so much. … I think we started off strong."
The movie follows New York comedian and film star Andre Allen (Rock), who has to confront his past and comedic career after doing an interview with journalist Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson).
"It's not an easy movie to define," Colligan added. "As we expand out, hopefully word of mouth and the positioning of the film will allow it to play well in suburban and smaller markets."
Rock's previous features as writer-director-star include 2007's "I Think I Love My Wife," an adaptation of Eric Rohmer's "Chloe in the Afternoon." It opened to about $5.6 million and ultimately grossed $12.5 million in the U.S. and Canada.
Colligan said Rock is a "broad star," appealing to a range of audiences.
"Everyone is excited to see him," she said. "He's funny and smart ... a marketer's dream."
Disney's "Big Hero 6" rounded out the top five, adding about $6.1 million. Its total domestic haul is about $185.3 million.
The animated film has also seen success overseas, grossing about $68.2 million in international markets. It's the second-highest grossing Disney-Pixar animation release of all time in Thailand. It has also become the biggest industry animation release of all time in Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia.
Fox Searchlight's "Wild," which has rolled out to 116 locations, broke into the top 10 in its second weekend.
The film, based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, added $1.55 million for a strong per-screen average of $13,300. To date, the film has pulled in $2.4 million.
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée ("Dallas Buyers Club"), the film follows Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) as she hikes more than 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. The Fox Searchlight film been well-received by critics and audiences.
Meanwhile Warner Bros. released "Inherent Vice" in five locations. The Paul Thomas Anderson-directed film had a strong debut of $330,000, a per-screen average of $66,000.
Despite the strong debuts, the box office is still down about 5% year to date.
With "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies," "Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb" and "Annie" all set to open this month, studios and movie chains are hoping ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada will catch up to last year's record of $10.9 billion.