Box Office: 'Son of God' Dazzles With $1.2 Million Thursday Night, Trumps 'Non-Stop'

UPDATED: The Christian film -- benefiting from brisk advance ticket sales -- is based on Mark Burnett and Roma Downey's hit television miniseries "The Bible."

Son of God opened to a impressive $1.2 million Thursday night at the North American box office. That was enough to beat the $720,000 earned by Liam Neeson's action pic Non-Stop, although Son of God benefited mightily from advance ticket sales.

Son of God is an unusual offering. The movie, chronicling the life of Jesus Christ, was made using footage from Mark Burnett and Roma Downey's hit 10-hour television miniseries The Bible (the married couple are devout Christians). Deleted scenes from the miniseries also are featured.

Twentieth Century Fox is distributing the movie, which amassed more than $4 million in advance ticket sales, thanks to heavy interest from churches and religious organizations that have organized group outings and theater take-overs, helping to account for Thursday night's strong number and what's likely to be a good Friday. The big question is how strong traffic will remain on Saturday and Sunday.

STORY: 2014 Is Jam-Packed With Bible-Based Movies 

Generally, Hollywood studios can use pre-release tracking to predict a film's opening, or at least provide a range. However, Christian films aren't as easy to track, hence Son of God could open anywhere between $14 million and $30 million, according to box-office observers (Fox thinks the upside is $25 million).

"Mark and Roma's grassroots, heartfelt marketing effort has galvanized audiences to see Son of God," said Fox distribution chief Chris Aronson.

If it comes in on the high end, Son of God could beat Non-Stop, which is expected to open between $21 million and $23 million -- a solid start. (Neeson also lends his voice to holdover The Lego Movie, which could feasibly beat both new films).

Non-Stop is produced by Silver Pictures and distributed by Universal. In the film, Neeson stars as a U.S. federal air marshal who runs into trouble on a flight from New York to London. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, Non-Stop also stars Oscar nominee Lupita Nyong'o and Julianne Moore.

Also this weekend, Paramount is re-releasing an R-rated, extended version of Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues in more than 1,000 theaters nationwide.

 Of any film, Son of God is arguably the most immune to Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony, which can take a substantial bite out of the box office.

The film opens exactly a decade after Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ became an instant hit, opening to a massive $83.8 million on its way to earning $612 million worldwide. Son of God, lacking the controversy that Passion of the Christ sparked, isn't expected to match those numbers.

Son of God is the first in a slew of Biblical and faith-based films set for 2014. On March 28, Paramount debuts Darren Aronofsky's tentpole Noah. The studio will play a trailer of Noah before Son of God.