Is ‘Ben-Hur’ a Dark Horse in the Chariot Race for Global Audiences?

Ben Hur Movie
Courtesy of Paramount

At the edge of Cinecittà Studios in Italy, a faux Roman statue raises its torch above all who enter. The 30-foot figure is a relic from one of the most famous scenes in cinema history — the
Charlton Heston chariot race from director William Wyler’s 1959 epic “Ben-Hur,” which boasted the biggest budget and largest sets of any production of its time.

Nearly 60 years later, the MGM classic is being reincarnated, both on the famous Italian studio’s soundstages, and across town in an empty field behind the Cinecittà World theme park. There, Russian director Timur Bekmambetov has erected a full-scale version of the Circus Maximus, only this time those monumental statues overlooking the Roman arena’s central spina will be inserted digitally.

It’s a sunburn-hot day in April, and onscreen rivals Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell have locked the wheels of their chariots, fighting each other with whips and knives as a pickup truck drags them ’round and ’round the track at 35 miles an hour. Both actors trained for nearly four months to drive horse-drawn chariots — smaller and faster than the bulky wagons seen in Wyler’s version — but for today’s shoot, the action is too dangerous to perform with horses.

“Basically, when you’re going around the arena with 32 horses, the slightest mistake could lead to death,” explains Huston, who spent stretches of the race being dragged behind his chariot while other teams of horses galloped only feet away.

Stepping into Heston’s shoes, Huston is keenly aware of the pressure on him, and the film itself, to perform in an era where cinema technology, film economics, and audience tastes have changed dramatically since the earlier “Ben-Hur” wowed moviegoers and swept the Oscars with 11 awards, including best picture, director, and actor.

“Of course there are going to be haters,” says Huston. “That’s par for the course when you’re retelling such an infamous tale. It’s like Kenneth Branagh going to do ‘Romeo and Juliet’ again for, like, the 50th time. [But] I think one of the greatest compliments one could ever be giving to [author] Lew Wallace is that we’re still reimagining his work more than 120 years later, because it’s so powerful.”

Well-Grounded: Actors Toby Kebbell (left) and Jack Huston, and director Timur Bekmambetov (right) strate-gize over a scene. Courtesy of Paramount

MGM and producing partner Paramount Pictures, co-financiers of the new “Ben-Hur” — which cost well over $100 million to produce and tens of millions more to promote — are placing a risky bet that today’s movie-goers will show up in droves as they did decades ago. Though the original film had a runaway production cost of $15 million and a $15 million marketing expenditure, it became the highest grossing film of 1959, and the second-most successful release of its day, after “Gone With the Wind.”

The new film’s producer, Sean Daniel, is confident that there is an audience for the movie, which “is not a remake,” he insists. “There’s an entire generation that has never seen ‘Ben-Hur,’” he says. “Movie distribution at that time was limited to North America and Europe. This is the first version that’s global.”

But Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations, is skeptical.

“Who does this movie cater to?” he asks. “You don’t go and remake ‘Titanic’ because you thought maybe James Cameron didn’t get it right, or because another generation hasn’t seen it.”

MGM and Paramount could have reason to be nervous. In the 12 years since “300” and “Troy” each scored nearly $500 million worldwide, audiences have proven ambivalent — if not outright allergic — to sandy, long-ago epics set in far-off deserts. Such films as Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “Kingdom of Heaven,” as well as “Gods of Egypt,” “Hercules,” “Immortals,” and “Pompeii,” all dried up well below $100 million domestically, a threshold that only the costly effects epics “Clash of the Titans,” “300,” and “300: Rise of an Empire” managed to cross. (All of these films did, however, perform better overseas.)

“After the summer we’ve had, you can’t take anything for granted,” says Paramount’s worldwide marketing chief Megan Colligan, referring to a crowded landscape littered with costly flops. That may explain why the studio had spent only 4% of its “Ben-Hur” marketing budget by the time “Star Trek Beyond” opened, despite delaying the originally scheduled February release. “We did some early testing, which revealed that there were people who thought they knew ‘Ben-Hur,’ but when you asked them further questions, you realized they were confusing it with ‘The Ten Commandments,’” Colligan says.

Personally inspired by the passing of Nelson Mandela in 2013, screenwriter Keith Clarke went looking for a story with a message of truth and reconciliation, and latched onto Civil War general Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel, “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” which he adapted on spec. As Clarke puts it, “It’s the story of three men at the crossroads of history. One chooses power and greed, one chooses revenge, and one chooses the path of peace and forgiveness. Only one survives.”

“Early testing revealed that there were people who thought they knew ‘Ben-Hur,’ but when you asked further questions, you realized they were confusing it with ‘The Ten Commandments.’ ”
Megan Colligan, Paramount

This is hardly the first time Wallace’s faith-based bestseller — which suggested the dynamic between Roman nobleman Messala (played by Kebbell), Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Huston), and a charismatic carpenter named Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro) — has been retold. MGM had already adapted the now-public-domain book twice (though rights to both Wyler’s version and Fred Niblo’s 1925 silent classic now belong to Warner Bros.), and before that, the novel inspired a hit 3½-hour Broadway play in which the chariot race was reenacted with live horses on stage.

Embracing the film’s biblical tie-in, Daniel and MGM president Jonathan Glickman enlisted Mark Burnett and Roma Downey to serve as executive producers. The pair, who had demonstrated their faith-based cachet with the 2014 miniseries “Son of God,” were intrigued by the message of forgiveness, which they have enthusiastically shared with an extensive network of pastors and church partners around the country. Whereas previous adaptations of “Ben-Hur” have been careful to avoid featuring Jesus directly (in the 1959 version, he is seen only from behind or in silhouette), here he is woven throughout, and Burnett and Downey submitted the script to a team of nearly 40 consultants from various faiths to gauge how audiences might react.

“With examples like ‘Noah’ and ‘Exodus,’ whoever thought it was a good idea to change the Bible clearly got spanked,” Burnett says. “In both of those movies, there was certainly a ticket loss from pissed off people because of that fact. In terms of ‘Ben-Hur,’ that won’t be a reason people will be mad at it, that’s for sure.”

Indeed, Paramount is counting on reaching faith-based and other underserved audiences. “That’s the name of the game for us: It’s about the infrequent moviegoer,” says Colligan. “Faith audiences want what all audiences want: big scope and scale…. The packaging of the action has to feel modern, and we’re lucky that Timur is directing the movie, because he has such a strong visual sense.”

Bekmambetov says that despite recent flops casting a pall on the historical genre, he looked to Scott’s 2000 multi-Oscar winning hit “Gladiator” as his model, hiring veteran stunt coordinator Steve Dent to marshal a team of 87 horses, while trusting the underdog story’s positive message to lure audiences.

According to Bekmambetov, many period movies fail because they are too fantastical and not relatable enough. “It was really important to find a way to make the movie feel contemporary,” says the director, who took some of his cues from NASCAR and Formula One races. “We’re living in the YouTube era of filmmaking.”

Any way you look at it, this is not your grandfather’s chariot race.

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  1. Phillip Ayling says:

    It seems unlikely that this will be a big success, but if it is, we will have a proud studio offering a re-imagining in about 6 years will an all female cast of gladiators.

  2. stevenkovacs says:

    So much in the bible to work with and instead a retread that the studio wanted to make not anyone else! And to make up for the ridiculous amount of money set up for the CGI effects (maybe its cheaper to film with real sets?) and save on the casting and director (?!)
    They know it won’t do well in North America; but are counting on the Foreign (esp Chinese) audiences who, apparently, eat the CGI heavy films up.
    Meh.

  3. macd says:

    ” director Timur Bekmambetov has erected a full-scale version of the Circus Maximus, only this time those monumental statues overlooking the Roman arena’s central spina will be inserted digitally.”

    This is all I needed to know to predict the gigantic flop this latest, totally unnecessary version of “Ben-Hur” will be. Both the silent and 1959 versions are still awesome because everything (the sets, crowd scenes, actors) were REAL! CGI/Digital special effects have destroyed today’s movies. I don’t care how expensive they are. Everything looks phony (including “Titanic”). 1933’s “King Kong” is still a knockout. Both hugely expensive remakes are laughable. And don’t get me started on the fact that there are very few bona fide movie stars. Even Woody Allen (who should know better) nonetheless cast the sullen Kristen Stewart and the toxic Jesse Eisenberg as the romantic leads in “Café Society” (which, despite mostly rapturous reviews, is slowly sinking at the boxoffice). Didn’t anyone tell him this charisma-free couple had already co-starred in two previous stinkers? And no matter how the media struggles to put on a happy face, this summer at the plexes has (with the exception of two cartoons and a couple of comic-book hits) been an unmitigated disaster.

    Last week, SONY finally admitted that the all-girl “Ghostbusters” tanked with a $70,000,000 loss. A few days later came the cringe-worthy announcement that the “Ocean” franchise will be rebooted with an all-female cast! Which proves that the mainstream studios are not learning from their competitors’ mistakes, they’re copying them!

    I don’t know what the answer is, but when this year’s People Magazine couldn’t find one actor worthy of its Sexiest Man Alive citation and instead bestowed that smarmy honor on a sports jock whose tattoos are already beginning to sag, the future looks extremely grim indeed.

  4. IT--II--IT says:

    CAN the INTEL RUN Hollywood franchise slum
    possibly get any more STALE and repetitive ? ? ?

    YES !

  5. meta says:

    WHAT NEXT? REMAKE THE GODFATHER???

    now is a more appropriate time then any to say that.

    I know people have been complaining about Hollywood being unoriginal for years, hell decades but now it’s official. Hollywood would make more money remaster and releasing the original Ben Hur in IMAX or other big formats. This movie is a costly mistake. This movie scares me. Does cinema have a future? Or are we all just going to watch 30 second you tube videos and binge watch netflix? What happened to simplistic genius of a 1.5-3 hour feature? Do people not want that anymore?

    Jesus, I’m scared. My greatest pleasure in life is crashing down before my eyes. Hollywood is remaking everything.

    How did studios get so stupid. If you look at the stats, remakes rarely if not ever do well.

  6. loco73 says:

    Including “Kingdom Of Heaven” amongst those movies is completely and utterly stupid!

    “Kingdom Of Heaven” ‘s failure came at the hands of the studio’s moronic and idiotic interference with the movie and Ridley Scott’s direction and that mutilated theatrical version that was released, one which basically cut out important back stories, perspectives, plot points, in order to emphasise the special effects and action. That destroyed the movie and what it was meant to be.

    Also, it proved to be a less than intelligent choice to release the movie only a week ahead of “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith”… It still came at number one but with a modest take, and of course it ended being swallowed up by “Revenge Of The Sith”…

    The complete version of the movie, released as the Director’s Cut, proved that “Kingdom Of Heaven” was an amazing movie, a great historical epic and one of Ridley Scott’s best works!

    I think that “Kingdom Of Heaven” is a masterpiece, a sadly underrated and criminally ignored and unrecognised one! For me one of the best movies I’ve had the pleasure to watch and definitely one of my all time favourites!

  7. Carlos says:

    The producers will end up being missing after this garbage comes out.

    Who greenlights this?

  8. “Faith audiences want what all audiences want: big scope and scale…. ” is that really what all audiences want? scope and scale? how about a good script? sharp dialogue? character development? honestly, that’s what hollywood studios are getting wrong, its always ”the bigger the better”, and its so not resonating with audiences, much less with film critics, and we’re getting to a point where movies are so uninspired that the oscars should start a branch just for television, because thats where the good stories are nowadays, i can’t remember the last time i was moved by a movie…

  9. Michael Klossner says:

    The Burnett/Downey 2014 “Son of God” was a film, not a miniseries.

  10. DinaraH says:

    Small correction: Timur Bekmambetov is a Kazakh director not Russian

  11. MovieBill says:

    the 1959 version was one of the biggest hits of all time. it was a worldwide phenomenon. most expensive film of it’s time. winner of the most Oscars of any film–and still holds the record, tho shared. it was a reserved-seat engagement for nearly 2 years. it was directed by one of the greatest directors of all time. and this one?
    a scaled-down production, NO STARS, and the director of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer” who takes NASCAR as his inspiration.

  12. EricJ says:

    I see “haters” has now officially become one of the buzzwords for paying audiences who don’t want to see your movie before you even finish making it…

  13. Ben says:

    Paramount is going to take a huge loss on this giant mistake.
    The people running the studios are incompetent these days.

  14. Bill B. says:

    BIG flop.

  15. christopher says:

    In the trailer Jack Huston tells a Roman his name is Ben Hur. Charlton Heston would have said Judah Ben Hur. A small detail, but I did not sit well with me.

  16. Joe says:

    When will studios in variety writers ever get it straight? Kingdom of Heaven and Exodus failed because they were severely mutilated by studio interference. We got to see how good a movie Kingdom of Heaven was on Blu-ray. No such luck for Exodus as of yet. Honestly the list of movies that have been ruined by the suits is probably as long as my arm and continues today with BvS and Suicide Squad.

  17. cadavra says:

    Wyler’s epic was actually the third theatrical telling of the tale; there were silent versions in 1907 and 1926. Thus that 1959 film wasn’t “the original.” Better to say “the previous version” or something similar.

  18. EricJ says:

    Is it dumb, visual, generic and CGI-heavy enough to be global? Yes. Unfortunately.
    Do Timur Bekmambetov movies make money in the US? No. Of course not.

    “’Who does this movie cater to?’ (Bock) asks. ‘You don’t go and remake ‘Titanic’ because you thought maybe James Cameron didn’t get it right, or because another generation hasn’t seen it.'”
    No, if you’re a Hollywood studio, you remake Titanic because you wonder why theaters haven’t had an audience-grabbing legendary blockbuster smash since 1997, and you’re sentimental for some nostalgic symbol of why it “used to be fun” for audiences to go to theaters.
    That’s why we’re also getting that Magnificent Seven remake: It’s a recognition of no light at the end of the tunnel.
    Because we’ve moved from studios wondering why nobody can make a new horror or sci-fi movie anymore as good as they could in the 80’s, to studios wondering why nobody can make a new action movie anymore like they did in the 60’s and 70’s, and hoping that invoking the old holy titles will create the theater magic again. It doesn’t work that way.

    • M says:

      Unfortunately film production has become so costly, the studios try to maximize their dollars by churning out reboots and remakes that might appeal to both the young and the old. Anything with a “built-in” audience gets the greenlight over fresh, unproven material. Hard to imagine, though, that sand & sandals will appeal to today’s young moviegoers.

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