By Lisa Richwine and Chris Michaud
LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Dystopian thriller "Divergent," the story of a society that divides people based on personality traits, dominated weekend movie charts with $56 million in U.S. and Canadian ticket sales, kicking off a new franchise for "Hunger Games" producer Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.
Walt Disney Co family comedy "Muppets Most Wanted" finished in second place, nabbing $16.5 million from Friday through Sunday, according to estimates provided by Rentrak. Animated "Mr. Peabody & Sherman," produced by Dreamworks Animation Inc, took the No. 3 slot with $11.7 million.
"Divergent" is adapted from a popular series of young adult novels by newcomer author Veronica Roth. Ahead of the weekend, forecasters had predicted the film would debut with between $50 million and $68 million in North American (U.S. and Canadian) ticket sales.
Shailene Woodley stars in "Divergent" as Tris Prior, a teenager who doesn't fit in to a faction because she has multiple dominant personality traits, making her a threat to the government. She chooses to join the Dauntless faction of warriors who defend the society's inhabitants. British actor Theo James plays Four, Tris' mentor and love interest.
The debut of "Divergent" fell short of the box office heights of two other young adult franchises. "Hunger Games" started with a massive $152.5 million in March 2012 while "Twilight" opened with $69.6 million in November 2008.
Lions Gate said Friday it was confident "Divergent" would become an important franchise for the company and it was moving ahead with the second film in the series, called "Insurgent," which will reach theaters in March 2015.
Noting that the "Divergent" opening was shy of blockbusters "Hunger Games" and "Twilight," Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations Co., said "$56 million is a great opening for any film, and virtually locked down the proposed trilogy."
"This is something to build on for the series, and with the cast expected to be in high demand, the 'Divergent' legacy will continue to grow," Bock added.
Richie Fay, the studio's president of domestic distribution, said, "We're very pleased with the outcome for the franchise launch."
The movie's A+ CinemaScore grade from the under-18 audience bodes well for the coming weeks as spring break and Easter school holidays approach, Fay said, noting, "The young adult audience has been underserved in the last couple of weeks."
The company spent $85 million to produce "Divergent," plus $40 million to $45 million on marketing, according to a person with knowledge of the film's budget. The studio has recouped about $70 million of the cost through international licensing deals, the person said.
"Muppets Most Wanted," a sequel to a 2011 "Muppets" movie, stars Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey and Ty Burrell alongside Miss Piggy, Kermit the Frog and other classic Muppet characters. In the new film, Kermit is imprisoned in a Russian gulag in a case of mistaken identity, while an evil impostor travels with his muppet friends on a European tour.
"Mr. Peabody and Sherman" brought its global sales through three weekends to $172 million. The movie was distributed by 20th Century Fox.
Rounding out the domestic charts, Greek warrior sequel "300: Rise of an Empire" landed in fourth place with $8.7 million, while the independent faith-based new release "God's Not Dead" pulled in $8.6 million to claim the No. 5 spot.
Warner Brothers, a unit of Time Warner, released "300: Rise of an Empire."
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles and Chris Michaud in New York; Editing by Sophie Hares and Jan Paschal)