LOS ANGELES — 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, while “Divergent” dropped off sharply and “Cesar Chavez” got off to a slow start.
“Noah,” 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.
The film brought in a diverse crowd, said Megan Colligan, Paramount’s president of domestic marketing and distribution. It drew a 50-50 split of male and female audience members and generated strong turnout among Christians, 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, viewers at 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.”
Audience members at some screenings have noted unintended laughter at certain points in the film.
“I did think there were a few weird moments, like the rock creatures,” Christenson’s daughter, Khaida Gordon, 17, of Benton, Ore., said of elements that are among the looser interpretations of the biblical story. “They were interesting and a little strange. I’m still trying to figure out if it was a good addition or not.”
Good or not, “Noah” far outdistanced “Divergent,” which generated $26.5 million in its second weekend — a 51 percent decline from its opening but still good enough for No. 2 on the box-office list. Based on 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 grade from filmgoers, according to the polling firm CinemaScore, the film generated only $3 million in its opening weekend, good for 12th place. Its per-screen average of about $4,500 was little more than one-third of that for “Noah.”
Disney’s “Muppets Most Wanted” finished third, generating $11.4 million, and “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” finished fourth with $9.5 million. But delivering a bigger surprise — again — was “God’s Not Dead,” which with about $9.1 million finished fifth 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 and saw its weekend box office rise 30 percent. With a weekend take of $8.8 million, the film has brought in $24.5 million during its slow rollout.
“Many moviegoers are finding out about Wes Anderson for the first time,” said Frank Rodriguez, Fox Searchlight head of distribution, who added that strong word of mouth has been helping the comedy.
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, received negative reviews from critics and could become Schwarzenegger’s lowest-grossing movie in more than two decades.
Other milestones: Disney’s “Frozen” passed “Toy Story 3” to become the No. 1 animated film ever, with an estimated gross of more than $1.072 billion worldwide. And in its eighth weekend, “The Lego Movie” eclipsed the $400 million mark in worldwide box office receipts.