After three weeks of LEGO dominance, first place will go to a new movie this weekend. Liam Neeson action flick Non-Stop has received the broader marketing push, though Son of God has been generating the type of presales that suggest it could be a breakout hit with underserved Christian moviegoers.
At 3,090 locations, Non-Stop reteams Neeson with Unknown director Jaume Collet-Serra. Since Taken became a surprise hit in 2009, it feels like Neeson has been everywhere; however, the only movies since then that have been sold primarily on Neeson's appeal are Unknown and The Grey. Those opened to $21.9 million and $19.7 million, respectively, and distributor Universal is expecting a similar result for Non-Stop this weekend.
There are reasons to think that Non-Stop could open a bit higher than those movies. Marketing has smartly highlighted the movie's intriguing, appealing set-up: can Neeson's beleaguered air marshall solve a whodunit before more airline passengers die? It also promise the kind of action that Neeson's fans expect, with most ads including a pretty wild shot of Neeson grabbing and firing a gun in mid-air. Universal has also been pretty aggressive with the campaign, as advertisements ran throughout the Winter Olympics on NBC.
Ultimately, an opening north of $25 million seems within reach for Non-Stop.
Playing at 3,258 locations, Son of God is a total wild card this weekend. When it was announced last Fall, many scoffed at the project—it is, after all, attempting to get people to pay movie theater prices for content many have already seen via The History Channel's popular mini-series The Bible. To be specific, Son of God repurposes The Bible's depiction of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, from his birth through resurrection.
The last major depiction of Jesus on the big screen was nearly a decade ago, when Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ shocked the world by opening to over $125 million in its first five days. Son of God lacks that movie's controversy, production value, and curiosity factor, though it does seem to have support from church communities. There are reports of ministers encouraging their congregation to attend the movie, and some churches are buying up large numbers of tickets.
According to the Pew Research Group, around 37 percent of Americans attend some kind of weekly religious service. Other polling suggests that around three-quarters of Americans identify themselves as Christian. By that math, over 80 million Americans attend some kind of Christian service each week. If a meager five percent of that group turns out for Son of God this weekend, that would translate to an opening weekend of more than $30 million.
There's still the nagging question of whether audiences will pay their hard-earned money for content that's already readily available to them. To that end, a comparison could be drawn between Son of God and 3D re-releases. In the case of 3D re-releases, the movie itself is already available for cheap viewing at home. Still, plenty of people coughed up their hard-earned money for premium-priced tickets so that they could once again experience the movie in a communal, big-screen setting. The first movie to get this treatment was The Lion King, which opened over $30 million in September 2011.
In a sign that moviegoers may give Son of God a similar reception, Fandango reported that the movie was accounting for 40 percent of pre-sales on Thursday morning. Ultimately, don't be surprised if Son of God winds up in first place at the box office this weekend.
A handful of movies are receiving moderate releases this weekend. Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises, which is nominated for Best Animated Feature, expands to 496 theaters after earning over $400,000 from 21 theaters in the past week. World War II movie Stalingrad, which earned over $52 million in native Russia, will open at 308 IMAX locations. Finally, Lionsgate releases Forest Whitaker/Anthony Mackie thriller Repentance at 152 theaters. It would be surprising if any of these titles cracked the Top 10.
Meanwhile, Paramount is re-releasing an R-rated extended cut of Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues in to 1,317 theaters. There has been a slight marketing push around this, with an emphasis on the "fact" that there are 763 new jokes. Unfortunately, audiences weren't very enthusiastic about the original version, and re-releases like this don't have a particularly strong track record anyway. Expect less than $2 million for the three-day weekend. Forecast (February 28 - March 2) 1. Son of God - $27.5 million 2. Non-Stop - $25.4 million 3. The LEGO Movie - $19.4 million (-38%) Bar for Success Non-Stop is in good shape if it reaches $20 million this weekend. Meanwhile, Son of God just needs to cover marketing expenses; anything over $15 million is a huge win.