Forecast: 'Divergent' Leaps Into Theaters -- Will It Be the Next YA Hit?
Thursday Update: Divergent earned an estimated $4.9 million from late Thursday shows. In comparison, the first Twilight opened to $7 million at midnight in November 2008. If Divergent follows an identical pattern, it will wind up close to $50 million for the three-day weekend.

Forecast: Young-adult adaptation Divergent, which is being positioned as the successor to Twilight and The Hunger Games, should easily take first place at the box office this weekend. Meanwhile, Muppets Most Wanted also opens, though with a bit less fanfare than its predecessor.

Opening at 3,936 theaters, Divergent is the latest in a long line of young-adult adaptations aimed at the young female audience that turned out in droves for the Hunger Games and Twilight franchises. Unfortunately, other recent attempts have been less-than-impressive: in the past 14 months alone, Beautiful Creatures, The Host, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones and Vampire Academy all bombed.

No question about it, Divergent is in a league above those movies. It's widely accepted that Veronica Roth's book series—which also includes sequels Insurgent and Allegiant—has a huge following, possibly on par with Twilight's ahead of release. It also helps that it's being released by Lionsgate/Summit, which has a proven track record with young-adult material (Twilight and Hunger Games).

Their marketing campaign got the message out early and often: the first trailer launched with Catching Fire in November, and the recent publicity onslaught has been hard to avoid. According to Summit, Divergent now has the most Instagram followers ever for a movie. All of this has resulted in fast advanced ticket sales: the first day was one of the Top 10 ever, and Fandango is reporting that Divergent currently accounts for 80 percent of sales for the weekend.

Clearly, Divergent has a significant fanbase that has been successfully mobilized for the big-screen adaptation. For these young-adult properties to really break out, though, they need to connect with general audiences that may be less familiar with the material. In that respect, Divergent has struggled to avoid Hunger Games comparisons. Both movies feature young adult heroines fighting an authoritarian government in some kind of post-apocalyptic setting. Unfortunately, there's an immediacy to Katniss' struggle in the arena that's lacking from Divergent: does Tris Prior's identity crisis really hold much interest to anyone who hasn't read the book?

Making matters worse, the movie is receiving poor reviews: as of Thursday afternoon, it was hovering around 35 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. While that's not going to deter the fans, it will absolutely keep some more casual viewers away.

The first Twilight opened to $69.6 million in November 2008. Ahead of release, Lionsgate/Summit is expecting slightly less ($50-$60 million) for Divergent.

Opening at 3,194 theaters, Muppets Most Wanted reaches theaters two-and-a-half years after Disney's 2011 Muppets reboot. That movie earned $41.5 million over a long Thanksgiving weekend, but fell off quickly and closed at $88.6 million. That steep drop was surprising, considering the movie had great reviews (96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and seemed well-liked by audiences (7.2 on IMDb).

While the sequel keeps the titular Muppets, it does make a few noteworthy changes. For the human cast, Jason Segel and Amy Adams are out, and Tina Fey, Ricky Gervais and Ty Burrell are in. Also, instead of a sentimental story about reuniting the old gang to save a theater, Muppets Most Wanted is a wacky caper set in Europe.

Commercials have played up the laughs, which is the key to connecting with family audiences. Still, animated movies have held the top spot in five of 11 weekends so far this year, so it's possible that families are wrung dry right now. Also, the first movie's nostalgia factor doesn't seem to be in effect here, which means less interest among adults. Ultimately, it would be surprising if Muppets Most Wanted opened above $25 million.

Christian movie God's Not Dead is being released nationwide in to 780 locations this weekend. There are examples of modest faith-based movies breaking out: with a similar release, 2008's Fireproof opened to $6.8 million. That's the exception, though, and better comparisons like The Ultimate Gift, To Save a Life and The Grace Card all opened between $1 and $2 million. A similar fate is likely for God's Not Dead.

New limited releases this weekend include Blood Ties (28 theaters) and Nymphomaniac: Volume I (24 theaters). Blood Ties hasn't received much of a push, and Nymphomaniac has the kind of sexually-charged content that may be better suited for home viewing (it's been available on VOD for weeks). Therefore, initial box office returns for these two titles will likely be modest.

Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel expands to 304 locations this weekend. Last weekend, it earned $3.4 million from just 66 theaters; this weekend, it should have no problem grossing over $5 million. Meanwhile, Jason Bateman's Bad Words reaches 87 locations ahead of its nationwide expansion on March 28th.

Forecast (March 21-23):

1. Divergent - $51 million

2. Muppets Most Wanted - $22 million

3. Mr. Peabody - $13.1 million (-40%)

4. 300 - $9 million (-53%)

5. Need for Speed - $8 million (-55%)

Bar for Success

With its rabid fanbase and poor reviews, Divergent is the type of movie that will likely burn off quickly after opening weekend. As a result, it's going to need a strong start—it doesn't need to match Twilight, but it should be opening over $50 million. Meanwhile, Muppets Most Wanted is fine if it opens over $20 million.

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