Liam Neeson in 'Non-Stop'
Liam Neeson in 'Non-Stop'

Two strong new openers --Universal's domestic pick-up "Non-Stop" and "Son of God," a theatrical revamping of cable hit "The Bible"-- led another strong weekend at the box office. It's the 14th straight weekend that improved on the previous year's take (likely a record). Joined by the strong fourth week of "The Lego Movie" (Warner Bros.) at over $20 million, the total for the Top 10 came to $106 million, up a strong $18 million from 2013, with the year to date more than 8% ahead.

Other than Disney's unstoppable "Frozen," none of these pictures were Oscar contenders. A new quasi-wide release, "The Wind Rises" from Japan (released by Buena Vista in the U.S.), a best animated feature nominee, grossed a solid $1.6 million in 496 theaters, good for 13th place. (More details on this and other grosses from contenders in Arthouse Audit.)

In a marketing ploy to promote its upcoming DVD release, Paramount re-issued "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" in a new R-rated version, taking in a minor $1,335,000 in 1,317 theaters. That brings the film's total to $126 million, making it Paramount's biggest year-end release ($12 million ahead of Oscar nominee "The Wolf of Wall Street," which barring a surprise win tonight is nearing the end of its run).

1. Non-Stop (Universal) NEW - Cinemascore: A-; Criticwire: B-; Metacritic: 56

$30,000,000 in 3,090 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $9,715; Cumulative: $30,000,000

Universal's third #1 opener of 2014 (they've held the top spot 5 out of 9 weeks) isn't a home-grown production. They acquired domestic rights for $13 million for the $50-million American/French coproduction from long-time action heavyweight Joel Silver ("Lethal Weapon" and "Matrix") and StudioCanal. This derivative formula follows that of the French international series "Taken," sharing lead actor (Liam Neeson, filling the powerful aging action icon niche once owned by Harrison Ford) and also utilizes an established European director with previous genre success (Spanish Juame Collet-Sera, previously partnered with Silver on "House of Wax" and "Unknown").

A throwback to past simple concept formulas (in this case, Neeson is an air marshal who saves the day when a Transatlantic plane is threatened by outside forces looking for ransom), this kind of Silver thriller can score in most of the world with its uncomplicated, stripped-down plot and non-stop action. And it cost less than typically similar studio productions, showing once again that European involvement can not only be profitable but less expensive.

This opening in unadjusted dollars is the second best of Neeson's leading man career ("Taken 2" was better; adjusted, his 1999 Dreamworks film "The Haunting" was even stronger). For costar Julianne Moore, this is her best outing by far since 2001's "Hannibal" ("Carrie" last year was a disappointment).

What comes next: Silver returns to his sweet spot after losing his multi-decade studio home at Warner Bros. Collet-Sera is setting up his own lower-budget production unit, based on the successful formula that "Taken" producer Luc Besson has enjoyed. So expect him to be a major force in years to come.

'Son Of God'
'Son Of God'

2. Son of God (20th Century-Fox) NEW - Cinemascore: A-; Criticwire: B; Metacritic: 38

$26,500,000 in 3,260 theaters; PSA: $8,129; Cumulative: $26,500,000

Backed by a major grass-roots church-based marketing campaign and the promise of new scenes and a reshaping, this theatrical version of the History Channel's smash miniseries "The Bible" (mainly the second half) found a receptive audience to supplement its already profitable home viewing take. Timed to open just before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent, it is one of the few films to try to replicate the huge success of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" a decade ago. It also precedes other Biblical stories scheduled for 2014 release, including Darren Aronofsky's controversial "Noah" later this month and Ridley Scott's "Exodus" at Christmas. If there is a fly in the ointment, it comes from a slight downtick in Saturday's gross, explained in part by including initial Thursday night grosses in the Friday number. The business may have been front loaded, and this retread may not be long running. Look for more studios to be willing to burn movie audiences with reworked TV series. 

What comes next: This sets a box-office bar for more broadly commercial epics scheduled ahead, and also will do nothing to discourage other faith-based historical films.