"Divergent" tops box office with $56 million debut

This image released by Summit Entertainment shows Shailene Woodley, left, and Theo James in a scene from "Divergent." AP Photo/Summit Entertainment, Jaap Buitendijk

"Divergent" has stormed the box office, taking the No. 1 spot with an estimated $56 million in its opening weekend.

The film's debut, while slightly lower than some had anticipated, launches Lionsgate's third franchise built on young-adult best-sellers (joining "The Hunger Games" and "Twilight").

With an audience 59 percent female and half under the age of 25, "Divergent" lured young moviegoers with dystopian drama and stars Shailene Woodley and Theo James. "Divergent," though, fell well short of its forerunners: "Twilight" opened with $69.6 million in 2008, and "The Hunger Games" began with $152.5 million in 2012.

Richie Fay, president of domestic distribution for Lionsgate, called it "a great beginning for another franchise for the company." The sequel, "Insurgent," is already in the works and has a release date set for March 2015. The third installment, "Allegiant," is slated for 2016.

"The key to the success of these franchises is finding the difference and marketing it," said Fay. "It's not easy. And I think we're doing it better than anyone else right now, frankly."

In the rush to adapt popular young-adult fiction, Lionsgate has succeeded where many others have floundered. "Divergent," made with a budget of $85 million from Veronica Roth's best-sellers, follows less stellar results from youth-focused films like "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones," ''Vampire Academy" and "Beautiful Creatures."

Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for box-office tracker Rentrak, calls the "Divergent" debut a "three-peat" for Lionsgate in a challenging genre that defies "cookie-cutter, assembly line" development.

"They make it look easy," says Dergarabedian. "You're chasing probably the most fickle audience in the world. They can change their minds on what's cool in the blink of an eye."

Disney's Muppets sequel "Muppets Most Wanted," with Ricky Gervais and Tina Fey, fared poorly, earning just $16.5 million over the weekend. "The Muppets," opened notably better with $29.2 million in 2011, benefiting from the high-profile reboot starring and co-written by Jason Segal.

Dave Hollis, head of distribution for Disney, acknowledged the result was disappointing and somewhat "head-scratching" considering advance tracking had suggested "Muppets Most Wanted" would draw bigger crowds.

"There certainly was something in the last Muppets -- not having anything available for fans for a while -- that satisfied pent up demand that we didn't have the benefit of this time around," Hollis said.

The family film market was also more competitive than expected, as 20th Century Fox's animated "Mr. Peabody and Sherman" has held better than anticipated. In its third week of release, the film -- tops at the box office last weekend -- slid to third with $11.7 million.

Studios often seek out late March release dates for family-friendly movies to benefit from spring break vacations. So "Muppets Most Wanted," made for $50 million, could still eke out more at the box office.

The surprise of the weekend was the strong performance of the independently released "God's Not Dead," made to appeal specifically to faith-based audiences. It came in fifth with $8.6 million, despite playing on just 780 screens.

The performance of "God's Not Dead" further proves the strong faith-based market for movies, one historically underserved before the runaway success of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."

Next week, Paramount Pictures' "Noah" directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Russell Crowe, will attempt to cross over to mainstream audiences with a Bible tale. Opening early in Mexico and South Korean, "Noah" got off to a strong start overseas, earning $14 million.

Expanding from 66 to 304 screens, Wes Anderson's European caper "The Grand Budapest Hotel" continued to pack theaters in limited release. It earned $6.5 million in its third week of release, with further expansion planned.

And though the crowd-funding of the big-screen edition of cult TV show "Veronica Mars" drew much publicity for its successful Kickstarter campaign, the movie has proved only of interest to devoted fans. On 347 screens, it made just $144,000 for Warner Bros., bringing its two-week total to $2.9 million.

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