Is Beatrice Prior the new Bella Swan? Can she kick ass like Katniss? Or, as Hollywood wants to know, can the dauntless heroine of novelist Veronica Roth's Divergent trilogy become the anchor of a multibillion-dollar movie series, as her sister predecessors did with The Twilight Saga and The Hunger Games?
For Lionsgate/Summit, the merged company that birthed the other two franchises, the early returns have to be encouraging. Divergent scored $56 million in its first weekend at North American theaters, according to preliminary studio estimates. That's the strongest debut for a live-action picture so far this year; the only higher opening, $69 million, was for the animated feature The LEGO Movie. So dominant was Divergent that it outgrossed the next five films in this weekend's top 10 — Muppets Most Wanted, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, 300: Rise of an Empire, God's Not Dead and Need for Speed — which earned a total of $53.2 million. Talk about Girl Power.
Budgeted at $85 million and starring Shailene Woodley as Beatrice, Divergent didn't match the 2008 opening of the first Twilight film ($69.6 million, which would be about $81 million in today's dollars). It will finish nearly $100 million behind the sensational $152.5-million premiere of The Hunger Games two years ago this weekend. But the Divergent opening is strong enough for Lionsgate to greenlight two or three more movies to complete Roth's story. The early audience — 59% female, 50% under the age of 25 — awarded Divergent a golden "A" in the CinemaScore survey of first-nighters. Those under 18 gave the movie a giddy A-plus.
The CinemaScore for Muppets Most Wanted was a saggier B-plus, a notch below the "A" for the 2011 comedy that relaunched the movie career of the Henson Company's kid-friendly puppets. Most Wanted, produced for about $50 million, scored a disappointing opening gross of $16.5 million, far behind the $29.2 million of The Muppets. The audience for the new film was predominantly female (54%) and young (54% under 25, 70% families). Since the last movie did less business abroad than at home, Most Wanted can't count on a robust foreign market. For Kermit, Miss Piggy and the gang, it may be back to the sock drawer.
While Most Wanted was playing on about 4,600 screens, the evangelical drama God's Not Dead appeared on just 850, yet earned $8.6 million, or more than half of the Muppets gross. A severely belated, fairly belligerent response to the famous 1966 TIME cover story "Is God Dead?", the movie sets up a debate on the Deity's existence between a winsome Christian college student (Shane Harper of the Disney Channel's Good Luck Charlie) and a sneering atheist professor (Kevin Sorbo, considerably bulked down since his days as TV's Hercules). No Spoiler Alert: the title tells you who wins.
(READ: The "Is God Dead?" cover story by subscribing to TIME)
Produced on the cheap in Baton Rouge, La., the movie expands its targets from atheism to Islam. The daughter of one strict Muslim secretly listens to podcasts by Billy Graham's son Franklin, the same preacher who recently found Vladimir Putin's view of gay people more Christian than Barack Obama's.
Whatever the theological skew, God's Not Dead underlines the niche popularity of fundamentalist movies, which are among the most popular and profitable of all independent films. In 2008, without anyone much noticing, the Bible-thumping Fireproof, budgeted at $800,000, earned $33.5 million.
(READ: Richard Corliss's review of Fireproof)
And don't forget that Son of God, the very reverent Jesus story that had played in a longer version on the History Channel, has earned $55.6 million in theaters. Will that impressive number be topped by Noah, the $125-million saga that its director, Darren Aronofsky, has called "the least biblical biblical film ever made"? We'll get the first clues when it opens next weekend, amid some vocal resistance from the U.S. Christian right and from Muslim countries such as Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, which have banned the movie. (Wait till they see God's Not Dead.)
On the indie scene, Secular Division, Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel continued mightily, earning $6.7 million on about 600 screens for a $11,300 per-screen average, the weekend's best among any film playing in 10 or more theaters. (God's Not Dead pulled $10,100 per-screen.) The documentary Jodorowsky's Dune, about the Chilean director's mid-1970s attempt to film Frank Herbert's science-fiction classic, summoned $36,700 at three venues. And Lars Von Trier's Nymph()maniac Vol. 1, despite or because of all the commotion about its explicit sexuality, had a flaccid $175,000 opening in 25 theaters. The film is also available on pay-per-view, for what its distributor, Magnolia, calls "a really great VOD take" — though what that take is, Magnolia won't say.
Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:
1. Divergent, $56 million, first weekend
2. Muppets Most Wanted, $16.5 million, first weekend
3. Mr. Peabody & Sherman, $11.7 million; $81 million, third week
4. 300: Rise of an Empire, $8.7 million; $93.8 million, third week
5. God's Not Dead, $8.6 million, first weekend
6. Need for Speed, $7.8 million; $30.4 million, second week
7. The Grand Budapest Hotel, $6.75 million; $13 million, third week
8. Non-Stop, $6.3 million; $78.6 million, fourth week
9. The LEGO Movie, $4.1 million; $243.4 million, seventh week
10. Tyler Perry's The Single Moms Club, $3.1 million; $12.9 million, second week