Director Darren Aronofsky's biblical epic "Noah" sailed at the weekend box office as the film opened at No. 1 with an estimated $44 million in ticket sales.
The film, which cost about $130 million to make, solidly met expectations, according to Paramount Pictures, which had initially forecast a $30-million opening weekend. "Noah" already has generated about $95 million overseas.
"It was a fantastic result," said Megan Colligan, Paramount's president of domestic marketing and distribution. "I think the movie really surprises people and makes them want to talk about it."
"Noah" brought in a diverse crowd, Colligan said, a 50-50 split of male and female audience members. The film generated strong turnout among Christians, Catholic Latinos and African Americans, plus "lots of Aronofsky fans in major cities," Colligan said.
"There was a pretty good balance of age ranges but a little bit of an older crowd, which we expected," she said.
In Santa Monica, one packed AMC theater gave the film a standing ovation Saturday night.
"At first I thought maybe we walked into the wrong movie -- it was a little cheesy of a start," said Astacia Christenson, 36. "But it worked out because you got into the characters, there was some good acting and the story picked up and got more interesting. The movie saved itself."
In second place this weekend was "Divergent," which generated $26.5 million in its second weekend. Based off a young adult novel series, the Lionsgate film, directed by Neil Burger and starring Shailene Woodley, tells the story of a young woman fighting for freedom and survival in a dystopian society.
Though the new biopic "Cesar Chavez" received an A from filmgoers on Cinemascore, the film generated only $3 million in its opening weekend, good for 12th place. It's per-screen average of about $4,500 was about one-third of that for "Noah."
Disney's "Muppets Most Wanted" finished third, generating $11.3 million, and "Mr. Peabody and Sherman" finished fourth with $9.5 million. But delivering a bigger surprise -- again -- was "God's Not Dead," which with about $9 million finished fifth at the box office for the second week in a row. The faith-based film, about a college student defending his beliefs against a professor, features Kevin Sorbo, Dean Cain, the popular Christian rock group Newsboys, and Willie and Korie Robertson from the "Duck Dynasty" television show as themselves.
Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" expanded to 977 theaters from about 300 theaters last weekend and moved up one spot in the box office rankings to sixth with a weekend take of $8.8 million. That brings the cumulative take for its slow rollout to $24.5 million.
"Many moviegoers are finding out about Wes Anderson for the first time," said Frank Rodriguez, Fox Searchlight head of distribution, who added that word-of-mouth on the comedy has been strong.
Arnold Schwarzenegger's new crime thriller "Sabotage" finished seventh with $5.3 million in its opening weekend. The picture, which cost about $35 million to make, has received negative reviews from critics and could become Schwarzenegger's lowest-grossing movie in more than two decades.
Also noteworthy in the U.S. top 10: "Need for Speed" fell 45% to finish eighth with $4.3 million; "300: Rise of an Empire" hung in at ninth with $4.3 million; and "Non-Stop," in its fifth week, generated about $4.1 million.
Also this weekend, Disney's "Frozen" passed "Toy Story 3" to become the No. 1 animated film ever, with $1.072 billion worldwide.