With an estimated production cost that’s in the vicinity of $100M, MGM and Paramount certainly didn’t build Ben-Hur to fail this weekend.
But if there’s one Come-to-Jesus from this remake’s estimated disastrous $11M opening: It’s still a challenge for Hollywood to cross over a faith-based film to the masses 12 years after the $370M ($612M global) success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
Ben-Hur is the third big-budget faith-based movie from a major studio to fall from box office grace in the wake of Noah ($101.2M domestic B.O., $125M production cost) and the mighty Moses misfire Exodus: Gods and Kings ($65M domestic B.O., $140M cost).
The irony? Last year at about this time, Sony’s thrifty-priced, holy-roller title War Room made $11.3M at 1,135 venues; 63% less Ben-Hur’s 3,084 theater count. Ben-Hur‘s opening isn’t that far from where Sony’s low-budget Roman Centurion epic Risen opened on Feb. 19 with $11.8M at 2,915 locations. Ben-Hur will need to rely on the kindness of such Christian offshore territories as Latin America to raise it up, out of its red sea of ink; and that’s not an unforeseeable miracle given how these sword and sandal movies can make two-to-four times their domestic take abroad. MGM carries the bulk of Ben-Hur‘s production cross at 80%, while Paramount is only on the hook for 20%.
In all fairness, the marketplace is stacked against all titles, not just Ben-Hur, due to schools back in session the final weekend of the Rio Summer Olympics. Suicide Squad is back up at its original projection this morning with $20.2M (-54%) in No. 1. Sausage Party is down -54% with $15.7M in second. That’s fine, but a tad lower than we heard for this Sony/Annapurna title. Warner Bros.’ Todd Phillips action comedy War Dogs is looking at an OK $14.8M (B CinemaScore), and then there’s Kubo and the Two Strings which is the lowest debut of the four Laika/Focus movies with an estimated $12.1M (A CinemaScore).
But just like the faith-based measured Paramount’s Noah against the Bible two years ago, leading to its ultimate alienation of that audience and short legs at the box office, Ben-Hur is being compared by reviewers (31% Rotten Tomatoes score) and moviegoers to the 1959 multi-Oscar winning movie. That’s one of the primary factors that’s curbing Ben-Hur‘s weekend business. Also, fresh face leading man Jack Huston isn’t turning turnstiles in the way that Emma Watson’s social wattage, and Russell Crowe star did for Noah ($43.7M opening). And of course, the sword and sandal genre has yellowed since the early aughts when Gladiator and Troy ruled.