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

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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