'Noah' rises to top of box office with $44 million opening weekend

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- After weathering a sea of controversy, "Noah" arrived in first place at the weekend box office.

Paramount's biblical epic starring Russell Crowe in the titular role opened with $44 million, according to studio estimates Sunday.

The imaginative take on the tale of Noah's Ark from "Black Swan" director Darren Aronofsky led some religious groups to claim the story had been inaccurately depicted and prompted Paramount to add a disclaimer to marketing materials noting that "artistic license has been taken" in telling the story.

The polarizing attention apparently paid off for "Noah," which features such additions to the well-known Bible story as angelic rock creatures and chic wardrobes for Noah and his family.

"Noah," which also stars Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson, also sailed smoothly in 22 international markets, such as Russia and Australia, earning $33.6 million abroad.

"It certainly feels like the film has really connected with both mainstream moviegoers who are looking for a really sophisticated film and those folks who really want to see a movie that honors their faith," said Rob Moore, Paramount vice chairman. "It's been a very interesting journey to get to this point, but it's definitely a spectacular launch."

"Noah" is the latest faith-centric film to win over audiences this year. Others include the independently released "God's Not Dead," which earned $9 million in its second outing this weekend, and "Son of God," whose domestic total now stands at $57.9 million since opening last month.

"I think these biblical-themed movies are like the next frontier in Hollywood," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for box-office tracker Rentrak. "Hollywood hadn't cracked the code on a biblical movie that would have mainstream appeal. Now, I think they've figured it out. We may see a flood - pun intended - coming down the pipeline. We already have `Heaven is for Real' and `Exodus' slated for later this year."

Elsewhere at the box office, Lionsgate's teen science-fiction thriller "Divergent" starring Shailene Woodley came in second place and earned $26.5 million in its second weekend, bringing its domestic total to $95.3 million.

"Muppets Most Wanted," the globe-trotting Muppet sequel from Disney featuring Tina Fey and Ricky Gervais, captured third place with $11.4 million in its second weekend. The latest Muppet caper's total domestic haul is now at $33.2 million.

The weekend's other major new release, "Sabotage," flopped in the seventh spot with $5.3 million. The Open Road action flick starring Arnold Schwarzenegger is the latest failure for the former California governor, whose "The Last Stand" and "Escape Plan" were box-office duds last year.

Disney's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," which opens in the U.S. on Friday, dominated 32 international markets by capturing $75.2 million. The sequel stars Chris Evans as the patriotic Marvel super-soldier.

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Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Rentrak. Where available, latest international numbers are also included. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.

1. "Noah," $44 million ($33.6 million international).

2. "Divergent," $26.5 million.

3. "Muppets Most Wanted," $11.4 million.

4. "Mr. Peabody and Sherman," $9.5 million ($17.8 million international).

5. "God's Not Dead," $9 million.

6. "The Grand Budapest Hotel," $8.9 million.

7. "Sabotage," $5.3 million.

8. "Need for Speed," $4.3 million ($13.3 million international).

9. "300: Rise of an Empire," $4.3 million ($8.8 million international).

10. "Non-Stop," $4.1 million.

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Estimated weekend ticket sales Friday through Sunday at international theaters (excluding the U.S. and Canada) for films distributed overseas by Hollywood studios, according to Rentrak:

1. "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," $75.2 million.

2. "Noah," $33.6 million.

3. "Mr. Peabody & Sherman," $17.8 million.

4. "Rio 2," $14.1 million.

5. "Need for Speed," $13.3 million.

6. "300: Rise of an Empire," $8.8 million.

7. "Frozen," $8 million.

8. "The Monuments Men," $7.8 million.

9. "The Grand Budapest Hotel," $7.5 million.

10. "Ocho apellidos vascos," $7 million.

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Universal and Focus are owned by NBC Universal, a unit of Comcast Corp.; Sony, Columbia, Sony Screen Gems and Sony Pictures Classics are units of Sony Corp.; Paramount is owned by Viacom Inc.; Disney, Pixar and Marvel are owned by The Walt Disney Co.; Miramax is owned by Filmyard Holdings LLC; 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight are owned by 21st Century Fox; Warner Bros. and New Line are units of Time Warner Inc.; MGM is owned by a group of former creditors including Highland Capital, Anchorage Advisors and Carl Icahn; Lionsgate is owned by Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.; IFC is owned by AMC Networks Inc.; Rogue is owned by Relativity Media LLC.

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Follow AP Entertainment Writer Derrik J. Lang on Twitter atHTTP ://WWW.TWITTER.COM/DERRIKJLANG  .

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