When the dust settled at the box office this past weekend, two biblical-themed films found themselves at opposite ends of the top 10: The modestly budgeted family drama "Heaven Is for Real" earned an impressive $22.5 million to debut in the No. 2 slot, and Darren Aronofsky's Old Testament epic, "Noah," took in $5 million over its fourth weekend, putting it in the No. 9 spot.
In a year when religious movies are fruitful and multiplying, "Heaven" and "Noah" represent two very different examples of Hollywood courting Christian audiences, and together they demonstrate some of the potential rewards and risks of doing so.
"Noah" has proved by far the most controversial biblical-themed movie this year, and in the months leading up to its release, it came under fire for taking artistic license with Scripture. Though many aspects of the film adhere closely to the Bible — the ark is dimensionally accurate, for example — it's also very much the work of an auteur with a strong personal vision, one that may not be everyone's cup of tea.
The Russell Crowe-starring film opened to a robust $44 million its first weekend, but it also garnered a weak C grade from the polling firm Cinemascore, a bad sign for a film's word-of-mouth prospects. Paramount executives chalked the C up to strongly polarized opinions rather than apathy.
"The one thing CinemaScore doesn't pick up well is when feelings are passionate on either side," Rob Moore, Paramount's vice chairman, told USA Today. He added that while 63% of audiences gave the movie an A or B, 14% gave it a D or F, bringing down the average.
In its second weekend, "Noah" fell a sharp 61% to gross $17 million, and it has since slowed to a relative trickle. To date it has earned $93 million domestically, considerably below its $130-million budget. The film has been a solid performer internationally, however, taking in an additional $197 million.
If "Noah" was something of an auteur-driven gamble, Sony TriStar's "Heaven Is for Real" was a safer play, more in line with recent success stories "God's Not Dead" and "Son of God."
"Heaven" is based on the on the best-selling book of the same name and stars Greg Kinnear as a father whose young son experiences the afterlife following a near-death experience. Like "God's Not Dead," it tells a contemporary story and thus sidesteps the thorny issue of being faithful to the Bible.
While "Son of God" does draw on scriptural source material in telling the story of Jesus Christ, the film, which was culled from the History Channel miniseries "The Bible," is similar to "Heaven" in that it's a very straightforward adaptation.
The "Son of God" filmmakers even went out of their way to avoid controversy: After a kerfuffle about the actor who plays Satan in the miniseries resembling President Obama, the filmmakers purposely excised his scenes from the movie.
With both "Heaven Is for Real" and "Son of God," audiences felt they got what they came for, as reflected in their A Cinemascores.
For "Heaven," that should pay dividends. Since opening last Wednesday, the film has already made more than twice its $12-million budget.