In 2004, Mel Gibson’s biblical film The Passion of the Christ hit theaters after a months-long, small-scale ad campaign that focused on church groups and evangelical leaders, despite controversy over its violent content and allegations of anti-Semitism. After opening on Ash Wednesday, it became the highest-grossing R-rated film in history, earning $611 million worldwide. It was a genuine indie phenomenon born out of circumstances so unusual they’d be impossible to replicate—so naturally Hollywood has tried anyway with Ben Hur, the biggest and most disastrous result of the industry’s hubris to date, which opened this weekend to a pitiful $11.4 million at the box office.
The fifth film adaptation of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was a $100 million co-production between Paramount Pictures and MGM. It starred the relatively unknown British actor Jack Huston in the title role, was directed by the mid-tier action maestro Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), and drew largely negative reviews. Many critics noted the film’s supreme inferiority to William Wyler’s 1959 version of the tale, which won 11 Oscars and is widely viewed as one of the greatest classic Hollywood epics. Just the idea of remaking Wyler’s film feels like a colossal error in an age of tiresome franchise reboots—but when you consider how studios tried to belatedly capitalize on religious audiences to save the movie, the existence of Ben-Hur seems all the more cynical.
It’s hard to understand who else Ben-Hur was supposed to appeal to. The original novel tells the story of a Roman slave who becomes a champion chariot racer and devout Christian after being inspired by the deeds of Jesus Christ, whose story runs parallel to the main narrative. The older viewers who’d be most likely to recognize the title would almost invariably compare the new film to the beloved 1959 (the movie’s audience skewed older, with 94 percent over age 25). Meanwhile, younger audiences, the demographic Hollywood has the toughest time connecting to, would have little interest in Ben-Hur on name recognition alone. What’s more, they’d be even less drawn to a swords-and-sandals epic set in Ancient Rome, which has become a deeply unpopular genre in the years after Gladiator’s success in 2000.
With no obvious age group to target, MGM and Paramount decided to pitch Ben-Hur straight at religious audiences. The film was largely advertised on Christian broadcasting networks, with the studios hoping to attract the kind of word-of-mouth hype that greeted The Passion of the Christ (which opened to an astonishing $83 million in 2004). Commercials highlighted the fact that the remake was more heavily inspired by Wallace’s book. Wyler’s 1959 film was more oblique about the character of Jesus, who was barely shown onscreen. But Bekmambetov’s version sees the Brazilian star Rodrigo Santoro in a much-expanded version of the Christ role, for which he sought and received a blessing from Pope Francis.
In 2004, Gibson’s roadshow tour for The Passion of the Christ saw him visiting church groups and giving impassioned speeches about the film (which Hollywood studios refused to fund or distribute). The result was an organic, grassroots movement that sprung up in the movie’s favor. But this year’s Ben-Hur marketing campaign was more haphazard, shifting to religious audiences only in recent months when it became clear word of mouth wasn’t spreading through the now-traditional methods of advertising (television, online, and social media among them). The producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey showed Ben-Hur to celebrity pastors and pushed their endorsements out online, as well as holding special screenings at mega-churches around the country in recent weeks.
That approach has often worked for smaller-scale, faith-based films. In recent years, movies like Heaven Is for Real, War Room, Miracles from Heaven, God’s Not Dead, and Risen have been solid, mid-size hits, earning between $40 million and $90 million in the late winter and early spring seasons, when the box-office market is less crowded. But they weren’t the $100 million epics that Ben-Hur was, nor were they hoping to draw the younger, action-oriented audience that can boost an opening weekend. Instead, they opened small and added theaters as popularity grew. Because of its huge budget, Ben-Hur couldn’t do that—it needed to open strong like The Passion of the Christ did. But a glance at the relative success of all Christian-oriented films shows that Mel Gibson’s 2004 triumph was probably a bizarre anomaly, not some magic model for studios to follow.
Ben-Hur’s failure wasn’t just that it couldn’t appeal to Christian audiences. But its poor box-office take seems to reflect countless misguided Hollywood strategies, all of which have combined for a particularly lackluster blockbuster season this summer. Ben-Hur highlights the diminishing returns studios are seeing from the endless cycle of reboots and sequels, and exposes the folly of relying on name recognition and old marketing formulas. The film might not be Hollywood’s most memorable flop of 2016, but it’s the latest evidence of how unsustainable (and costly) the industry’s approach to moviemaking has become.
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