The film was showing on 3,260 screens in threatens across America, with an average of about $8,000 tickets sold per screen. About $9.4 million of tickets were sold the first day, according to Box Office Mojo. Nearly the same amount sold on Saturday, but then on Sunday sales slipped to $7.8 million.
Those numbers will likely please the producers of the film, since they're about what was expected. One internal projection reportedly put opening weekend sales at $22 million, a bit below actual sales. Another projection put sales a bit higher than they actually were. If 5 percent of self-identified Christians bought a ticket, that would rack up sales of about $30 million.
"Son of God," it would seem, did as expected on the movie market, bringing in $26.5 million.
Those numbers are also better than a lot of other recent religious movies. The evangelical film "Courageous," widely thought of as a success, opened its first weekend with only $9 million in ticket sales. Of course, that film did not receive as wide a distribution as "Son of God," and was only shown on 1,161 American screens.
Fox, however, has been pushing its religious films more aggressively than other studios and giving them wider distribution. The company has made a concerted effort to, depending on how one thinks of it, either reach or cultivate a conservative Christian market. "Son of God" is part of this. It is also being widely distributed by Fox, and the studio is seeing results similar to its other efforts.
The first weekend ticket sales are on par with other religious films the studio has released in recent years. "Black Nativity," released in the fall of 2013 on more than 3,000 screens, grossed $3.6 million the first weekend. The most recent installment of the Chronicles of Narnia franchise, also produced by Fox, debuted on more than 3,000 screens for opening weekend of $24 million.
Both of those films turned into financial disappointments, however.
Ticket purchases for "Black Nativity" dropped off sharply, ultimately only totaling $7.4 million, about $10 million less than it cost to make the movie. Narnia also didn't do that well after the opening weekend. Sales for the second weekend were down by about 50 percent, and ultimately the $155 million film only made $105 million in US theaters. Though the company made a profit in foreign theaters, where ticket sales totaled at $311.2 million, there hasn't been any rush to make the next Narnia movie.
With Lent starting on Wednesday, though, and the support of a variety of Christian ministers, Fox hopes this strong start will be followed by sustained interest.
The people behind "Son of God" are hoping, in fact, that this movie will be more like a movie that Fox didn't make, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." The advertising campaign for this recent life of Jesus has closely followed the plan that brought Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" so much financial success 10 years ago.
These initial numbers indicate that "Son of God" isn't quite in up to the standards of "The Passion," however. Its first day in theaters, on Ash Wednesday a decade ago, "The Passion" sold $26.5 million in tickets, as much as "Son of God" sold its whole first weekend. "The Passion" grossed more than $83.4 million in ticket sales on its opening weekend. It was shown on 3,043 screens, but each screen brought in an average of about $27,500, that first weekend, $19,000 more than screens showing "Son of God," this last weekend.
"The Passion" went on to become the best-selling R-rated film in history, according to Box Office Mojo.
Studio executives certainly knew that "Son of God" was not going to do as well as "The Passion," but they have used it as a model and hope to recreate that commercial triumph.
There is reason to believe that marketing model has already paid off, too. On the Thursday before it opened, about 40 percent of all pre-sold tickets were for "Son of God," according to the ticket-selling service Fandango. This indicates a large number of groups were going to see the film, reserving blocks of seats in theaters. Some churches, in fact, were renting whole theaters and giving away tickets to weekend showings, in what amounted to a religious subsidy for the film.
If the faithful liked the movie enough to tell their friends, it will build on this initial success, and be a profitable film even if it never ranks next to Mel Gibson's mega-hit. Evangelical religious leaders who cut ads for the movie, offering short sermons based on specific scenes to illustrate the power and utility of the film, are certainly doing their part.
Below, evangelical megachurch pastors Rick Warren, of Sattleback, and Bill Hybels, of Willow Creek, share their favorite parts of the movie in online advertisements: