Forecast: After Months of Controversy, 'Noah' Finally Storms Theaters
Thursday Update: Playing at around 3,000 locations, Noah earned an estimated $1.6 million on Thursday evening. In comparison, Gravity earned $1.4 million, while 300: Rise of An Empire grossed $3.6 million. This number doesn't give a clear indication of how Noah will perform for the weekend, though most signs continue to point toward a debut north of $30 million.

Forecast: Following months of controversy, audiences will finally get a chance to make their own assessment of Noah this weekend. Sabotage and Cesar Chavez also open, though both should be under $10 million.

Playing at around 3,500 theaters, director Darren Aronofsky's Noah brings to life the well-known Old Testament story of Noah's Ark. Months ago, word began to spread that the movie took serious creative license with the story, which is fairly brief (Chapters 6 to 9 in Genesis) and strange (for example, Noah didn't have his kids until he was five hundred years old). This created an air of controversy around the project, which typically improves box office potential (controversy creates conversation).

While Paramount would like Noah to connect with religious audiences, you don't exactly have to be a regular churchgoer to be familiar with and curious about the story of Noah's Ark. The marketing material for the movie has focused mostly on the disaster elements, and also fashioned Russell Crowe's Noah as a warrior akin to his roles in Gladiator and Robin Hood. While this has broadened the potential, it's also diluted the message. Is it a faith-based movie? An action movie? A disaster movie?

Reviews are solid, but not spectacular, and probably won't move the needle much. Paramount is expecting an opening in the $30 to $33 million range. Meanwhile, Fandango is reporting that its selling more tickets ahead of time than 300: Rise of an Empire, which opened to $45 million at the beginning of the month.

Even if Noah is a miss in the U.S., it does seem poised for strong returns overseas (where its playing in 3D in most markets). This past weekend, it got off to impressive starts in South Korea and Mexico, and more territories will follow in the next few weeks.

At 2,486 theaters, Sabotage marks the third major role for Arnold Schwarzenegger since he returned to the big screen. The first two didn't work out so well: The Last Stand bombed with $12.1 million, while Escape Plan wasn't much better ($25.1 million). From those abysmal results, it seems like audiences just aren't interested in seeing the Governator in butt-kicking mode anymore.

Marketing for Sabotage has highlighted the End of Watch connection—they're both written and directed by David Ayer—and put a heavy focus on action. Story-wise, it's jumped between "drug bust gone wrong" and "kidnapped wife and child," both of which have been done countless times before. With tough competition from Noah—and with Captain America on the horizon—it would be surprising if Sabotage opened above $10 million.

While Cesar Chavez is only opening at 664 locations, it could do surprisingly strong business. The movie stars Michael Pena as the civil rights activist who worked to improve labor conditions for Latino farmworkers in the mid-20th century. Chavez is a major hero within the Hispanic community, who make up nearly one-third of frequent moviegoers in the U.S.

Last year, Hispanics flocked to Instructions Not Included, which opened to $7.8 million at just 348 theaters. That was a comedy, though, and Chavez doesn't have the same immediate appeal. Still, Lionsgate is doing a great job courting Hispanic audiences: Spanish dubbed and subtitled prints will be available at all locations. An opening north of $5 million seems likely.

After earning over $15 million in limited release, Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel expands in to nearly 1,000 theaters this weekend. It should once again earn over $6 million (and could be much higher).

Jason Bateman's Bad Words expands to over 800 theaters this weekend. The movie hasn't done too well in limited release, and there doesn't seem to be much buzz surrounding this nationwide expansion. It would be surprising if this made over $4 million this weekend.

Finally, God's Not Dead expands to over 1,100 theaters after its very successful $9.2 million debut last weekend. On good word-of-mouth, the movie should hold well: a weekend north of $6 million is likely.

Forecast (March 28-30)

1. Noah - $36.2 million

2. Divergent - $22.9 million (-58%)

3. Muppets - $10 million (-41%)

4. Sabotage - $7.8 million

5. Peabody - $7.7 million (-35%)

6. Grand Budapest - $7 million

7. God's Not Dead - $6.7 million

8. Cesar Chavez - $6.5 million

Bar for Success

Noah star Russell Crowe's Robin Hood opened to $36 million back in 2010. Noah ought to be in the same range: anything over $35 million gets a pass. Meanwhile, anything above $10 million is a win for Sabotage.

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