Like “The Lone Ranger” or “Battleship,” “Ben-Hur” is one of those massive box office wipe-outs that defies easy comprehension. How could something go this disastrously wrong?
After all, 1959’s “Ben-Hur” was an Oscar-winning smash that remains beloved. Posters for the Charlton Heston epic proclaimed that the film offered “An entertainment experience of a lifetime,” and its chariot races are still considered to be a high-point in action choreography.
In contrast, the new “Ben-Hur” wasn’t even the “entertainment experience of the third weekend of August.” After debuting to a paltry $11.4 million, it is certain to go down as one of the summer’s biggest flops. “The BFG” just breathed a huge sigh of relief.
It’s not for lack of trying. When it came to “Ben-Hur,” Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer didn’t stint on spectacle. The partners shelled out $100 million to recreate the arena and bring viewers back in time to when the Roman Empire was at its zenith. However, the film failed to generate the same kind of excitement as the Heston epic. The filmmakers had some success attracting faith-based consumers, but couldn’t grow the audience beyond the devout. Kids stayed away, critics lobbed bombs, and secular consumers took a hard pass.
As always, there are lessons to be gleaned from the carnage. Here are five reasons that “Ben-Hur” crashed and burned.
1.) Critics Hated It
Reviewers remembered William Wyler’s 1959 version fondly and found Timur Bekmambetov’s attempts to “Fast & Furious”-ize the action to be ill-considered and poorly conceived.
The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan dismissed the latest “Ben-Hur” as a “dull and lethargic piece of work” that had little reason to exist. Variety‘s Owen Gleiberman labeled it “sludgy and plodding,” lamenting that star Jack Huston paled in comparison to Heston. The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy asked simply, “what were they thinking?” And those were some of the nicer ones. It all amounted to a wretched 29% “rotten” rating on critics aggregator Rotten Tomatoes and a measly 37% on Metacritic.
Movies like this need good reviews to convert the curious into consumers — these kind of notices rang alarm bells, instead of serving as invitations.
2.) The Kids Didn’t Show Up
“Ben-Hur” is your grandparent’s epic. It’s a throwback to a time when “The Robe,” “The Ten Commandments” and other stories from the Bible were the hottest things on movie screens. A simpler time, before Vietnam and Watergate, iPhones and eReaders, Zika and #Lochtegate.
Still, marketing materials for the time scrambled valiantly to find the aspects of the story that wouldn’t just thrill geriatrics. Television spots tried to play up “Ben-Hur’s” chariot races, boat crashes and battling armies. But warring legions and gladiatorial combat can’t match the comic-book movies and special-effects spectacles that appeal to younger moviegoers. It’s just not a movie that plays in the Instagram age. Indeed, “Ben-Hur” had a negligible presence on social media services such as Facebook and Twitter, evidence that it could not boil down its pitch in a way that translated into likes and retweets.
In the end, 94% of the opening weekend audience for the film was over the age of 25, a signal that the film failed to draw many Millennials. In contrast, 54% of the opening weekend for “Suicide Squad” was under 25, half of “Sausage Party’s” debut crowd clocked in under that threshold and even “Jason Bourne,” a film with older appeal, boasted an opening weekend audience that was 40% under the age of 35.
3.) Swords and Sandals Epics Are Falling Flat
The toga genre has reached its expiration date. It’s been 16 years since “Gladiator” stormed movie theaters, racking up $457.6 million globally and nabbing a best picture Oscar. At the time it seemed as though Maximus and company might trigger renewed interest in the costume epic, but attempts to recreate the magic of the Colosseum have failed to connect with audiences.
“It’s sort of like the Western,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore. “It has its fans, but it’s just too small a group of fans.”
“Kingdom of Heaven,” “Exodus: Gods & Kings,” “Gods of Egypt,” “Noah,” “Seventh Son” and “The Immortals” are just a few of the historical action flicks or costumed fare that have landed with a thud or struggled to turn a profit. There have been a few hits, to be sure. Yet the likes of “300” or “Clash of the Titans” aren’t successful enough to paper over all that red ink. Plus, recreating the Ancient World doesn’t come cheap. Missing the mark can result in a big write-down.
4.) Muddled Marketing
“Ben-Hur” made a concerted effort to attract religious moviegoers, hosting taste-maker screenings for faith-based leaders and crafting commercials that talked up the film’s connection to Biblical teachings. Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer also leaned heavily on producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, the team behind “Son of God” and “The Bible,” to make the case to the EWTN set.
In some respects, their efforts paid off. “Ben-Hur” performed better in the South and Southwest than in the Northeast and the West Coast, where communities are less church-oriented.
“They made this very expensive movie for a very small audience,” said a rival studio executive. “They were banking too heavily on that faith-based audience. It was big miss.”
Other analysts believe that “Ben-Hur” relied too heavily on out-dated forms of outreach. In 2004, “The Passion of the Christ” established a template for marketing to values audiences by earning the buy-in of mega-pastors. In the ensuing decade, however, that kind of endorsement may not be enough.
“Today’s values customer — one in every three moviegoers in the U.S. — is younger and more digitally savvy than the general audience,” said Matthew Faraci, president of Inspire Buzz, an agency that specializes in marketing to values-based consumers. “As such, they expect highly targeted, authentic marketing that speaks to who they are and what they care about.”
But “Ben-Hur’s” problems went beyond that. The film also had difficulty appealing to secular audiences. It hoped that the action scenes would be so propulsive that the film could attract the devout, the indifferent and the atheistic. Alas, it was not to be.
“Their first campaign was not that Christian-based,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “Then in the last few weeks they went full bore after that group. But when you pull that Evangelical card, you turn off a lot of the audience.”
5.) Audiences Crave Something Fresh
After a summer where franchises and reboots have suffered diminishing returns, audiences in recent weeks have been embracing anything that seems new and original. To be sure, that doesn’t leave a lot of options. But “Suicide Squad,” based on a lesser-known comic-book; “Sausage Party,” a raunchy parody of children’s movies; and “The Secret Life of Pets,” a warm-hearted salute to furry companions, have all succeeded because they are a breath of fresh air in an atmosphere that is sequelfied to the point of stultification.
In contrast, “Independence Day: Resurgence,” “Star Trek Beyond,” “Jason Bourne,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” and “Ghostbusters” are just a few of the recent follow-ups and re-imaginings that have failed to keep pace with their predecessors or spun out completely.
“The bar is just much higher now for consumers in terms of supporting sequels or remakes,” said Rob Moore, Paramount’s vice chairman. Audiences want something that is either “great” or “original,” he added. In the case of “Ben-Hur,” they got neither one of those things.