Noah: Hollywood’s New Biblical Cycle

One of the first of several biblical-themed movies to flood the box office in 2014, Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” may enjoy a $35 million stateside opening later this month.

The drama could gross upwards of $40 million when it hits theaters March 28, though Paramount is estimating a lower $27.5 million to downplay expectations for the expensive production.

Paramount-New Regency’s $130 million Biblical epic, starring Russell Crowe, has proven difficult to measure given the controversy it’s generated among Christians.

The film, co-starring Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins and “Harry Potter” star Emma Watson, deviates from the Old Testament story of Noah’s Ark, forcing Paramount to add a recent disclaimer that the film doesn’t directly mirror the Biblical tale.

“The film was made for believers and non-believers,” Aronofsky told Variety last week at an art exhibit promoting the film. “I’m more concerned about getting non-believers into the theater or people who are less religious. A lot of people are thinking, ‘Oh. I don’t want to go see a Bible movie,’ but we completely shook up all expectations and people will see that as soon as they sit down and watch the movie.”

Most Famous Boat after Titanic

Aronofsky said it was a boat, not its religious predecessors, that convinced the studio to finance the feature. “I said, it’s at least the second most famous boat if not the most famous boat after the Titanic,” the director laughed. “That was my pitch.”

Opening less than a month before Easter Sunday (April 20), “Noah” has already been banned in several Middle Eastern countries, including Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, on religious grounds. Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait are expected to follow suit.

Biblical-themed films are having a good year at the box office.

Fox’s “Son of God” kicked off this year’s uncommonly large slate of religious wide releases when it opened in theaters to a strong $26 million. The film, based on the five-part History Channel miniseries from producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey,  appealed to faith-based audiences.

“Noah” could draw the same group of theater-goers. A recent Fandango poll of 1,000 people found that 76% of the people who bought advanced tickets to “Son of God” planned to see “Noah” as well.  Most (94%) respondents said they want to see more Biblical stories on the big screen.

Unlike Fox’s marketing, which aggressively targeted the faith-based community (Burnett and Downey reached out to Christian and Jewish groups in a grassroots campaign and church groups bought tickets to organize group outings and theater take-overs), Paramount has reached out to religious groups and the Pope, but is taking a broad marketing approach, including a Super Bowl spot.

With the director of arthouse smashes “The Black Swan” and “Requiem for a Dream” behind the camera, the film could draw a more diverse audience than religiously-targeted films.

Its current projections have the film grossing over $100 million total at the domestic box office, although insiders suggest the film needs stronger reviews if it wants to wrangle more moviegoers.

The Biblical saga will have hard time matching “The Passion of the Christ’s” epic $612 million worldwide gross (or even $371 million domestic).

Other religious-themed movies at the box office this year:

Randall Wallace’s Christian drama starring Greg Kinnear and produced by T.D. Jakes, “Heaven Is for Real,” will be released by TriStar next month.

Fox opens Ridley Scott’s Moses pic starring Christian Bale, “Exodus,” before Christmas.