Liam Neeson in a scene from the motion picture "Non-Stop." CREDIT: Myles Aronowitz, Universal Pictures
(USA TODAY) - Liam Neeson and Jesus broke The Lego Movie's near month-long hold on the box office as Non-Stop and Son of God drew flocks to the multiplex on Oscar weekend.
Non-Stop, Liam Neeson's version of Taken-on-a-plane, topped all films with $30 million, according to studio estimates from box-office trackers Rentrak.
The debut exceeded analysts' forecasts by about $2 million and solidifies the 61-year-old actor's reputation as the industry's most bankable action hero.
Non-Stop had more fans aboard than critics, 58% of whom recommended the movie, according to survey site Rotten Tomatoes. But the movie earned a collective A- from audiences, says pollsters CinemaScore.
The haul boosted the typically-slow Academy Awards weekend, in which diehard moviegoers become diehard television fans for the ceremony.
"Despite middling reviews, credit goes to the, well, non-stop ads," says Tim Briody, analyst for Box Office Prophets. He says the debut was diluted by the Academy Awards. "It's Oscar weekend, which means Sunday is a terrible day at the box office."
Son of God, the Biblical tale that drew support of pastors nationwide, took took second with $26.5 million.
The debut met expectations and was propelled in part by prominent ministers that included Joel Osteen and Rick Warren, who distributed thousands of tickets and urged vigorous turnout for the drama about Jesus' life.
While analysts consider devout audiences an underserved demographic in Hollywood, Ray Subers of Box Office Mojo says that Son was considered a "total wild card" when it came to predicting ticket sales.
When the film was announced last year, "many scoffed at the project," he says.
The movie "is, after all, attempting to get people to pay movie theater prices for content many have already seen via The HIstory Channel's popular mini-series, The Bible," Subers says.
But audiences gathered en masse for the movie, which scored an A- among moviegoers, says CinemaScore. Critics were more skeptical: Just 24% gaie it their blessing, according to Rotten Tomatoes. But 81% of fans said they enjoyed it, according to the site.
After three weeks at No. 1, the animated comedy Lego fell to third place with $21 million. It has snapped up $209.3 million overall, the biggest movie of 2014.
George Clooney's World War II film The Monuments Men was fourth with $5 million, followed by Kevin Costner's thriller 3 Days to Kill with $4.9 million.
Final figures are due Monday.