The producers of “Ben-Hur” are holding out for a miracle.
The $100 million Biblical epic is battling devastating pre-release tracking that suggests the story of a prince who is betrayed by a Roman nobleman may be one of the year’s most painful flops. Paramount, which co-financed the film with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, is hoping that the picture can hit $20 million when it debuts across 3,100 locations this weekend. Outside tracking agencies are less bullish, pegging a debut in the $10 million to $15 million range, a disastrous result considering the film’s steep budget.
“That would qualify it as possibly the bomb of the summer,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “A hundred million dollar film opening in the teens is unacceptable.”
It will also likely mean that “Suicide Squad,” the critically loathed comic book adaptation, will top the box office for a third consecutive weekend, pulling in $21 million. That will bring the super villain yarn’s domestic total to north of $250 million. An impressive result considering its withering reviews.
It may be a little early to write off “Ben-Hur” just yet. The studios believe that the film and its story of redemption will be able to draw faith-based crowds, who may not be getting polled by tracking services. The thinking is that these consumers are not frequent moviegoers, so their theater-going habits are not being as heavily weighted.
To reach these crowds, Paramount and MGM are playing up the religious elements in the story. Unlike the 1959 version of Lew Wallace’s tale, which never showed the face of Jesus, depicting him as a peripheral force in the narrative, this version puts the messiah front and center. The changes appear to be resonating with members of the faith-based community, who the studios have been courting with a series of tastemaker-screenings.
“It’s a movie that’s going to be inspiring to people of faith,” said Brian Godawa, a movie, culture and faith blogger, who saw the film at a showing on the Paramount lot. “It’s a movie that portrays faith in an honest, positive way without being triumphalist.”
The studio’s outreach efforts are being led, in part, by producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, who have ties to Christian groups from their work on mini-series, such as “The Bible.” Promotional materials for the film play up its ties to Biblical characters and teachings, and feature prominent religious figures enthusing over the movie. “Ben-Hur” has deployed a number of different faith-based marketing firms to tout the picture, among them Grace Hill Media and Motive Entertainment.
“To have success with values audiences, you have to be explicit in your marketing and let people know that this particular film is for them and that it speaks to who they are and the values that they care about,” said Matthew Faraci, president of Inspire Buzz, an agency that specializes in reaching faith audiences.
MGM has a bigger stake in “Ben-Hur,” but if it fails to resonate with audiences, it will be felt deeply on the Paramount lot. The studio has suffered a string of disappointments at the multiplexes, with the likes of “Zoolander 2” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” faltering, and other films such as “Star Trek Beyond” under-performing. To make matters worse, the studio’s parent company, Viacom, is engulfed in a corporate struggle that pits CEO Philippe Dauman against majority stakeholder Sumner Redstone. That battle is currently playing out in a series of legal scuffles across the country.
“Ben-Hur” is the weekend’s biggest bet, but other studios are hoping to draw crowds during the tail-end of summer. Warner Bros. will field the dark comedy, “War Dogs,” from “Hangover” director Todd Phillips. The story of two unlikely arms dealers stars Miles Teller and Jonah Hill, and cost north of $45 million to make. It hopes to attract college-age crowds, and should bring in $12 million when it bows on 3,100 screens.
That leaves Focus Features’ “Kubo and the Two Strings” as the weekend’s only other wide release entry. The fantasy adventure is set in ancient Japan and follows a boy and a monkey on their quest to reassemble a magical suit of armor. It’s is the latest venture from Laika, the animation company behind “ParaNorman” and “Coraline.” Tracking suggests that “Kubo” will rack up $13 million when it debuts across 3,260 North American locations. The budget is between $55 million to $60 million.
Paramount isn’t the only studio that has struggled this summer. It’s been a season weighed down by high-profile flops and duds, such as “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” “The Legend of Tarzan,” and “The BFG,” all of which misfired and will cost their backers millions of dollars. Still, overall ticket sales continue to be up 3% from the prior year, fueled by an unusually strong winter and spring that saw hits such as “Deadpool” and “The Jungle Book” do what so many films have failed to do of late. Excite audiences.