Once the storm clouds over "Noah" finally cleared this weekend, Darren Aronofsky's Biblical epic claimed an estimated debut of $44 million, about $9 million more than most pundits had predicted. The reason may be that the movie played to an underserved demographic who, thanks to canny marketing, were inspired to leave their sofas and come to the multiplex to see it. No, not Christians, but rather, older filmgoers.
In fact, this week's box office chart suggests that older viewers are making a big difference for hits throughout the marketplace. By the same token, the failure of Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Sabotage" offers a cautionary lesson about what happens when you depend on those older viewers and they don't show up.
Controversy over whether or not Christian viewers would find Darren Aronofsky's imaginative retelling of the Genesis tale sufficiently reverent to the Biblical text led to much speculation over whether such religious moviegoers would show up in sufficient numbers to make the movie a hit and, if they didn't, whether the movie could become a hit without them. But perhaps it was wrong to look at "Noah" as an effort by a major Hollywood studio to court skeptical Christians. After all, look at the movie's pedigree. Think of it as a $160 million art-house movie, a serious philosophical and theological exploration of an apocalyptically bleak source tale from the director of "Black Swan," featuring mature Oscar-winners Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, and Anthony Hopkins.
Seen from that perspective, "Noah" may or may not be the kind of movie that turns off Christian viewers, but it's also the kind that appeals to older viewers. Indeed, exit polling suggests that 74 percent of "Noah" viewers were older than 25. So while it's still not clear whether religious viewers showed up, fans of weighty storytelling and veteran thespians certainly did.
It's worth noting that the other current religious-themed hit, "God's Not Dead" (still in the top five in its second week), also takes a philosophical approach to issues of faith. In that sense, it's also designed to appeal more to older viewers than to, say, teens and kids. As a result, it added 398 screens this weekend (for a total of 1,178) and earned another estimated $9.1 million, almost identical to last weekend's take and good for a fifth-place finish.
Among the holdovers that make up the rest of the top five: There's "Divergent," an allegory about high school cliques that appeals to both current teens and anyone who remembers the hierarchical horrors of high school; and there's "Muppets Most Wanted" and "Mr. Peabody & Sherman," both family movies that appeal to moms and dads who remember the original 1960s and 1970s TV shows where the characters originated.
Elsewhere at the multiplex, Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" tripled its theater count to emerge from the art-houses into the mainstream, where the nostalgic caper's appeal to older viewers proved contagious. It finished in sixth place with an estimated $8.8 million. That's a per-screen average of $9,033, second only to "Noah" (with an average of $12,335) among wide-release movies.
Jason Bateman's "Bad Words" also expanded from limited release, adding 755 theaters for a total count of 842. A grown-up comedy about a middle-aged spelling bee contestant, the film finished at No. 13 with an estimated $2.6 million, or $3,141 per screen.
Biopic "Cesar Chavez," the latest attempt to tap the Latino market, also depended on older viewers who remember the civil rights activist and labor leader from his crusades in the 1960s and '70s. Playing on just 664 screens, it opened in 12th place with an estimated $3.0 million, for a solid per-screen average of $4,518.
Not every movie that sought older viewers this weekend succeeded in attracting them.
Schwarzengger's "Sabotage," his third starring role since returning to acting from his decade-long political sabbatical, premiered with an even lower take than his other recent efforts, "The Last Stand" and "Escape Plan." It opened in seventh place, earning an estimated $5.3 million on 2,486 screens, for a weak per-screen average of $2,144. The 66-year-old action hero may not have much appeal to younger viewers who don't even remember his glory days, but his stiff-jawed brand of action heroism may be too stale for older viewers as well.
Of course, "Sabotage" may simply have suffered from bad timing. After all, from "Noah" to "Grand Budapest Hotel" to "Cesar Chavez" to "Bad Words," there were a lot of alternatives for its over-25 target audience to choose from.
Photo courtesy Paramount