Box Office Preview: 'Noah' Prays for $35 Million-Plus U.S. Debut; Opens Strong in Australia

1:49 PM PST 03/27/2014 by Pamela McClintock

The big question is whether the biblical epic -- which is off to a strong early start overseas -- will play to faith-based audiences; Schwarzenegger is looking at another soft opening with "Sabatoge," while biopic "Cesar Chavez" makes a more limited play.

Testing the appetite for biblical spectacles, Darren Aronofsky's Noah begins rolling out at the North American box office Thursday night after months of speculation as to whether his darker take on the Old Testament prophet will turn off faith-based audiences.

Box-office observers are divided over the film's potential, although most believe it will cross $35 million in its North American launch in 3,400 theaters. Paramount and New Regency, which co-financed the $125 million-plus epic, are being more conservative, saying $30 million to $33 million.

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The movie is off to a strong start in its first three international markets — Mexico, South Korea and Australia — where it has earned $18.5 million since landing in South Korea a week ago. South Korea's seven-day cume is $10 million, while Mexico's six-day total is $7.5 million.

On Thursday, Noah opened to a strong $750,000 in Australia, 20 percent ahead of Gravity. Aronfosky's movie opens in another 18 countries this weekend, including Russia.

The bigger player overseas will likely be Marvel and Disney's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which opens in 32 markets, a week ahead of its U.S. opening.

Noah, starring Russell Crowe in the title role, is designed to play both as a mainstream tentpole and as a faith-based offering. Whether it can accomplish the latter in North America is the big question.

If it does attract the faith-based crowd -- a lucrative demo -- in big numbers, Noah could surprise. A potential competitor, however, is Christian film God's Not Dead, which opened to a stellar $9.2 million from less than 800 theaters last weekend. The film is expected to increase its theater count on Friday.

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Paramount has gone to great lengths to appease concerns among religious leader and church organizations about the tone of the film. The studio agreed to tweak its marketing campaign in recent weeks to say that Noah -- which has a strong environmental component -- is inspired by the story of Noah and the Ark, versus being a literal retelling.

Overall, older moviegoers are expressing the most interest in seeing Noah, according to prerelease tracking. If that prediction holds, Paramount believes the movie will have strong legs, since adults tend not ot rush out on opening weekend. The film sported a 76 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes as of Thursday afternoon.

Noah also stars Anthony Hopkins, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Ray Winstone, Logan Lerman and Douglas Booth.

The weekend's other new nationwide opening is the latest action pic from Arnold Schwarzenegger, director David Ayer's Sabotage. The poorly reviewed film is looking at a soft opening in the $6 million to $8 million range, generally in line with Arnold's other recent offerings.

QED International financed and produced Sabotage, about an elite DEA task force that goes up against a drug cartel. Sam Worthington, Olivia Williams, Terrence Howard, Joe Manganiello, Harold Perrineau, Martin Donovan, Max Martini, Josh Holloway and Mireille Enos also star. Open Road Films is distributing the film domestically.

Targeting Hispanics and union workers at the box office this weekend is Pantelion Films and Participant Media's biopic Cesar Chavez, which is making a more limited play. The movie, directed by Diego Luna and starring Michael Pena as the famed civil rights leader and labor organizer, is expected to earn $4 million.

America Ferrera, Rosario Dawson and John Malkovich also star.

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