Any talk of a curse on young-adult film franchises was put on hold this weekend with the estimated $56-million opening for “Divergent,” the first adaptation from a series of novels by Veronica Roth, while "Muppets Most Wanted" underperformed and "God's Not Dead" surprised some with a strong turnout from faith-based audiences.
Directed by Neil Burger and starring Shailene Woodley, "Divergent" tells the story of a young woman fighting for freedom and survival in a dystopian society. After a string of young-adult novel adaptations that has included some big hits along with many big misses, there was curiosity as to whether “Divergent” would be the next “Hunger Games” or the next “Mortal Instruments.”
"Divergent" solidly met expectations without exceeding them. By comparison, the first “Hunger Games” film opened at more than $152 million in March 2012, and the sequel, “Catching Fire,” opened in November 2013 to $158 million and went on to be the top film at the box office last year.
“This is a great start to another franchise,” said Richard Fay, president of domestic distribution at Lionsgate, which released "Divergent." “We’ve got a lot of runway ahead of us.”
A sequel to “Divergent,” titled “Insurgent,” is scheduled to begin filming in May and will be released next March.
In second place this weekend was “Muppets Most Wanted,” which took in an estimated $16.5 million -- far short of when “The Muppets” relaunched the venerable series on Thanksgiving weekend in 2011 to the tune of $29 million. James Bobin directed both films, but "Most Wanted" featured new lead actors in Tina Fey and Ricky Gervais.
“Overall it’s a little disappointing,” said Dave Hollis, president of global theatrical distribution at Disney. While noting that tracking had "Most Wanted" opening at more than $20 million, he added that the film is "an asset of the company across many lines of business." He said it "will likely hit $100 million or more worldwide on a budget of $54 million" and has "a lot of business left to do.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the weekend was “God’s Not Dead,” coming in at No. 5 with an estimated gross of about $8.5 million on just 780 screens. The faith-based film, about a college student defending his beliefs against a professor, features Kevin Sorbo, Dean Cain, Willie and Korie Robertson from the “Duck Dynasty” television show as themselves, and the popular Christian rock group Newsboys.
“We knew the possibility was there,” said David A. R. White, a producer as well as star on the film and also a partner in the faith-based film studio Pure Flix. White noted that interest in the film had been building since a trailer was released online last fall, stoked by screenings for some 8,000 pastors across the country.
The film will likely expand to at least 1,000 screens next weekend, he said.
“A lot of the message that we send is that when you go out and buy a ticket, you’re casting your vote as to the type of entertainment you want to see on a regular basis,” White said. He added that Pure Flix does not see its relationship to mainstream Hollywood as adversarial but rather simply “letting the audience decide if they want more of this, and they clearly do.”
The big-budget biblical epic “Noah” will be opening in the U.S. next weekend and got a jumpstart in Mexico and Korea this weekend. The film brought in $14 million in these early releases.
Also noteworthy in the U.S. top 10: “Need for Speed” fell 56% to finish sixth at the box office, with about $7.8 million; and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” climbed to seventh, with $7 million in its continued rollout.
Follow Mark Olsen on Twitter: @IndieFocus