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Hollywood's summer problem? Reboots people don't want

At the box office this summer, it didn't always pay to follow Hollywood's blockbuster script

Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer aren't talking about their decision to produce a remake of the classic epic "Ben-Hur," and it's easy to see why.

Their re-imagining of the New Testament-era tale grossed a measly $11.2 million in ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada in its debut last weekend, making it one of the biggest flops in a summer movie season that has been marred by multiple big-budget disappointments. The film, which grossed just $10 million overseas, could end up losing $75 million for the studios involved, according to Hollywood executives.

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The contrast to the 1959 version couldn't be greater. That film won 11 Oscars, made Charlton Heston into an even bigger movie star, and is widely accepted as a classic. On top of that, it was a box-office smash, collecting nearly $850 million when adjusted for today's ticket prices.

Alice Through the Looking Glass

"Ben-Hur" was not just another misfire for Paramount Pictures and its parent company, Viacom, but the poster child of a problem that has plagued the industry this summer — a glut of reboots, sequels and remakes that audiences don't want. Retreads that underwhelmed included Disney's "Alice Through the Looking Glass," Fox's "Independence Day: Resurgence" and Sony's "Ghostbusters."Paramount's "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows" was another notable bust.

That has dampened Hollywood's parade, even as industry ticket sales are up slightly compared with last year, thanks to hits including "Captain America: Civil War" and "Finding Dory" (both are sequels). Summer ticket sales through Labor Day are expected to reach $4.5 billion, virtually flat from a year earlier, according to ComScore.

The headline-drawing duds illustrate the growing difficulty studios face as they rely heavily on dusting off old movies and known properties to draw audiences who are increasingly picky about their entertainment options.

"Anytime you mention reboot and remake, the audience thinks 'ripoff,'" said Jeff Bock, box-office analyst for the tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. "I don't know why Hollywood keeps shoving these movies down our throat."

One reason is because it often works. Nonetheless, this summer has highlighted the risks of playing it safe.

Returning to the story of "Ben-Hur" was always considered a gamble for Paramount and MGM, the latter of which put up about 70% of the costs of  making, marketing and releasing the film.

Lew Wallace's 19th-century novel "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" had been made into two successful pictures -- a 1925 silent film and the 1959 Heston version. But modern audiences weren't as familiar with the story of the relationship between a Jew and a Roman.

"Of all the remakes that have been done, I don't think a lot of people were asking for a remake of 'Ben-Hur,'" said Eric Handler, an analyst at MKM Partners who covers the entertainment business. "If you're going to remake a film, you need to have a really great idea, and it has to be relevant."

The filmmakers and studio executives thought they could make a movie with updated action (including the climactic chariot race) and a more overt faith-based element to draw modern audiences. Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, known for their ability to make entertainment for the religiously inclined, were producers on the project.

"A lot of [film] people would look at 'Ben-Hur' and say 'I'm not going to touch that,'" screenwriter John Ridley told The Times before the film's release. "But as fantastic as the 1959 film was, there are things you want to excavate more clearly, relationships you want to look at more closely."

But the film suffered from a lack of star power, with relatively little-known actor Jack Huston in the title role, in contrast to the established Heston.

Watch the trailer for "Gods of Egypt."

It also was hurt by moviegoers' waning appetite for ancient-set epics. The 2010 film "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," 2014's "Exodus: Gods and Kings" and this year's "Gods of Egypt" all flopped.

"There's not much to distinguish 'Ben Hur,'" said Bruce Nash, a box-office analyst with Nash Information Services. "For a studio executive, I think it's really a challenge. They're just not finding stuff that's really creative and interesting."

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And catering to the faith-based crowd is no guarantee of success. Although the churchgoing audience has turned out for profitable low-budget movies such as "God's Not Dead" and "Heaven Is For Real," more expensive, mass-targeted efforts like "Noah," the 2014 film starring Russell Crowe, have divided audiences.

"Ben-Hur" won endorsements from pastors and famous Christians including Tim Tebow. But Matthew Faraci, whose marketing firm Inspire Buzz focuses on reaching religious audiences, said the marketing campaign for "Ben-Hur" didn't connect as well to faith-centric moviegoers as hoped. The ads, he said, tended to emphasize the action and racing elements.

"'Ben-Hur' was marketed ... as a sort of big summer tentpole 'Fast and Furious' A.D. 32 Edition, with the values audience as a key component, but not the central crux of the whole campaign," Faraci said.

Movies increasingly have to be well-reviewed and have positive social media buzz to get people excited, at a time when they have more home entertainment choices. "Ben-Hur," for instance, earned an uninspiring score of 28% positive on review site Rotten Tomatoes, as critics balked at the computer-generated effects and character development.

"Remaking a classic movie does put you under a microscope," Paramount distribution head Megan Colligan told The Times on Sunday. "You're playing with something that is classic. We knew it wasn't going to be easy."

X-Men: Apocalypse

Besides "Ben-Hur," this summer was evidence that some venerable brands are in decline among American audiences. "X-Men: Apocalypse," "Star Trek Beyond" and "Now You See Me 2" performed far worse domestically than their predecessors.

Exceptions such as Marvel Studios' "Captain America: Civil War" and Pixar's "Finding Dory" benefited from stellar reviews and deep audience affection for the originals. Marvel and Pixar, owned by Walt Disney Co., have spent years cultivating fan loyalty with a string of well-received films. But there were few movies that exceeded expectations.

"You need a movie or two that everyone expected to do well, and you need that sleeper hit to come in, and realistically you didn't see that happen," said Imax Entertainment CEO Greg Foster.

By and large, audiences rewarded fresh ideas and twists on familiar concepts, making surprise hits out of movies such as the Blake Lively shark film "The Shallows," the R-rated female comedy "Bad Moms" and the R-rated talking food cartoon "Sausage Party."

And Warner Bros.' DC supervillain mashup "Suicide Squad" rang up huge ticket sales despite a critical drubbing, thanks to its reversal of the typical comic book hero formula.

Animated fare, inducing "Dory," Universal's "The Secret Life of Pets" and Sony's "The Angry Birds Movie," proved a powerful pull with audiences. Low-budget franchise films such as "The Purge: Election year" and "The Conjuring  2" were also successful relative to their production costs.

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"Sequelitis is selective," said Chris Aronson, head of distribution for 20th Century Fox. "There's casualties every play period. That's just the nature of the beast."

Times staff writers Tre'vell Anderson and Steven Zeitchik contributed to this report. 

Follow Ryan Faughnder on Twitter for more entertainment business coverage: @rfaughnder

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