Lew Wallace's 19th-century novel "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" has been adapted into two popular movies — the 1959 Charlton Heston classic, plus a 1925 silent film. But Hollywood has little hope for the latest lap in the chariot race.
Paramount Pictures and MGM's big-budget reimagining of "Ben-Hur," opening this weekend, is aiming for an opening of $20 million in ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada through Sunday. However, several people who have seen pre-release audience surveys expect it to gross $10 million to $15 million. That would be a poor result for a movie that cost about $100 million to make (after rebates), and would make it one of the biggest flops of the summer.
The studios had bet that they could draw modern audiences to their new "Ben-Hur" with its updated action sequences, including the climactic chariot race, and an uplifting faith-based message. However, moviegoers have shown little interest in the movie so far.
Though reviews were not yet out for the new "Ben-Hur" as of Tuesday, it's clear that the filmmakers faced a daunting task in bringing the tale back to the big screen and living up to the legacy of the source material. The Heston version, directed by William Wyler, won 11 Oscars, was a huge financial success and is considered a landmark Hollywood epic.
The new project, directed by Timur Bekmambetov ("Wanted") with Jack Huston ("American Hustle") as the title character, has long faced skepticism from box-office prognosticators.
"You're going up against a film that swept the Oscars," said Jeff Bock, box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. "It just doesn't seem like a logical choice."
The new "Ben-Hur" was always considered a major gamble. Long-ago epics have struggled lately to find an audience at the box office, with bombs including "God's of Egypt" and "The Legend of Hercules."
A major summer flop would be another headache for Paramount Pictures, which is dealing with a mostly lackluster year at the box office. The Los Angeles-based, Viacom Inc.-owned company is ranked No. 5 out of the six major studios in terms of domestic box-office market share this year, ahead of Sony Pictures. MGM, the company behind the original "Ben-Hur" movies, put up the majority of the production costs for the new film.
A low opening for "Ben-Hur" could leave a path for the hit Warner Bros. supervillain mash-up "Suicide Squad" to top the domestic box-office charts for the third weekend in a row. It could gross $20 million Friday through Sunday, after hauling in $222.6 million from the U.S. and Canada so far and $243 million from foreign countries. The $175-million film has amassed $466 million in worldwide ticket sales.
In addition to "Ben-Hur," "Suicide Squad" will face new competition from two very different films this weekend: the R-rated black comedy "War Dogs" and the PG-rated animated fantasy "Kubo and the Two Strings."
Based on a true story, "War Dogs" stars Jonah Hill and Miles Teller as a pair of twenty-something American hotshots who score a lucrative Pentagon contract to run guns for U.S. allies in Afghanistan. Directed by Todd Phillips of "The Hangover," it could gross $12 million to $15 million through Sunday, a respectable start for a film that cost less than $50 million to make.
"Kubo," the latest from stop-motion animation studio Laika Entertainment, is also expecting a debut of $12 million to $15 million and could benefit from the rave reviews it has received so far from critics. Focus Features is releasing the picture for Laika, which is known for quirky family offerings such as "Coraline" and "The Boxtrolls."
Laika did not disclose the budget for "Kubo," about a boy in Japan who embarks on an heroic quest, but the Portland, Ore.-based studio's movies usually cost $55 million to $60 million to make.
Despite multiple high-profile disappointments, the U.S.-Canada box office has generated $3.92 billion in sales so far, up 3% from the same period of time last year, according to ComScore. However, the tally is down 5% from the record pace set in 2013.
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