Why the new 'Ben-Hur' is the biggest box-office flop of the whole summer

Ben Hur Paramount finalParamount‘Ben-Hur.’

There was a time when Hollywood would put all of its chips on the epic movies set in ancient Egypt or the Roman Empire to bring home huge box-office dollars.

But it looks like that time is over. The genre known in the business as “sword-and-sandal” has taken a hit in recent years, and the death blow may be the horrible performance this past weekend of Paramount’s reboot of “Ben-Hur,” a $100 million-budgeted epic that only took in an estimated $11.4 million over the opening weekend.

That gives “Ben-Hur” the most dismal opening of any big wide release this summer, coming in 5th at the box office. “Suicide Squad,” which has had a problem sliding in grosses each week, handily stayed at No. 1.

The 1880 book “Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ” has been a moneymaker for Hollywood for generations. Adaptations for the screen were made in the silent era in 1907 and 1925, then Charlton Heston played the title character, a Jewish prince who is betrayed and sent into slavery only to escape and seek revenge, in the 1959 version that went on to win 11 Oscars and includes an iconic chariot race (there have also been countless TV versions).

However, in today’s moviegoing landscape, if audiences want to see a movie in theatres that’s two hours long, it better feature all our favourite superheroes jammed in it or Leonardo DiCaprio frozen in the wilderness fighting a bear and sleeping inside a horse.

Ben Hur MGMMGM1959 version of ‘Ben-Hur’ starring Charlton Heston.

Though the director of the new “Ben-Hur,” Timur Bekmambetov (“Wanted,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”), put a thrilling chariot race in his movie, along with a few other above-average action sequences, it’s nowhere close to delivering on the dramatics or story strength of the Heston version (even with Bekmambetov’s having a scene in which Jesus is crucified).

“Ben-Hur” is more proof that audiences, especially coveted young moviegoers (94% of people who went to see “Ben-Hur” over the weekend were over 25), haven’t been excited about this type of movie since 2000’s “Gladiator.

“‘Ben-Hur’ is without question the flop of the summer, and its underwhelming performance is proof that the swords-and-sandal epic needs to be buried and unearthed at a later date to be determined,” Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, wrote to Business Insider in an email on Sunday after box-office figures were announced. “Certainly, without the right cast and story, these films have struggled mightily at the box office of late.”

Three sword-and-sandal titles found little audience interest in 2014 alone: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was the forgettable lead in “Hercules” ($245 million worldwide); criticised as a whitewashed retelling of Moses, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” bombed ($268 million worldwide); and the best performer of the three was “Noah,” though it was nothing to write home about with a worldwide gross of $362 million.

Exodus movie20th Century Fox‘Exodus: Gods and Kings.’

The latter two titles had a religious tone, like the new “Ben-Hur,” which for some movies has helped tremendously, leading faith-based viewers to come out in droves to support them.

The $3 million drama “War Room” is a recent example. It shocked the industry in 2015 when it opened with $11.3 million (going on to have a lifetime gross of $67.7 million). And then there’s Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which thanks to its evangelical marketing broke records during its release. It’s still the highest-grossing domestic R-rated movie of all time with $370.7 million.

But it seems like the faith-based group doesn’t come out so much for the Hollywood religious epics as it does for the independently produced ones — or maybe the studios aren’t marketing to religious consumers in the same way.

“Paramount originally marketed this film as a traditional summer blockbuster, but when that didn’t appear to be working, they suddenly focused on the faith-based crowd,” Bock points out of “Ben-Hur.” “That decision polarised not only mass audiences, but Christian ones as well.”

So an 11th-hour push to the faith-based demo didn’t save “Ben-Hur,” but the bigger issue is the disinterest in the sword-and-sandal story to begin with.

That’s not to say that a brand-name director and actor can’t team to make one that’s award-calibre. But Hollywood should forget trying to make these stories into blockbusters because it’s hurting the bottom line and insulting audiences’ intelligence.

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