By Brent Lang
LOS ANGELES, Aug 21 (Variety.com) - "Ben-Hur" derailed spectacularly at the multiplexes this weekend, as the latest attempt to revive the chariot racing epic opened to an anemic $11.4 million. That's a disastrous result for the $100 million production, putting "Ben-Hur" in the ranks of the summer's biggest flops.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Paramount co-produced the remake of Lew Wallace's novel "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ"; the book was the basis for the 1959 blockbuster that followed Charlton Heston into the arena. Here Jack Huston took the reins as a Jewish prince who must exact his revenge after his adopted brother (Toby Kebbell) betrays him.
"This is the bomb of the summer," said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. "They went big and they went home."
Although MGM put up roughly 80% of the budget for the film, its failure will be felt at Paramount. The studio has had a bad streak at the box office of late, fielding duds such as "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows" and "Zoolander 2." That's not the only source of strife. Its parent company, Viacom, has been engulfed in an epic corporate struggle pitting CEO Philippe Dauman over the Redstone family, the media conglomerate's controlling stakeholders. That issue, at least, is moving towards a resolution, as Viacom announced this weekend that Dauman was stepping down from atop the company and will be replaced on an interim basis by COO Thomas Dooley.
"Ben-Hur's" backers aggressively courted the Christian community, doing outreach to pastors and holding taste-maker screenings for religious leaders. The studios also hoped that producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, who earned devout points with "Son of God" and the mini-series "The Bible," would help them turn out values audiences. Instead, "Ben-Hur" trailed the $47 million debut of "Noah" and the $24 million launch of "Exodus: Gods and Kings," two recent Biblical epics that lacked a heavenly touch.
"Ben-Hur" drew a crowd that was 51% female and 94% over the age of 25. It also did well in the South and Southwest, areas that are more religious, but did not do as well in more secular regions of the country such as the Northeast and the West Coast.
The film, it seems, could not expand beyond its core Christian audience. Paramount Vice-Chairman Rob Moore noted that "Ben-Hur" is the latest in a string of remakes and sequels such as "Independence Day: Resurgence" and "Ghostbusters" to have failed to draw crowds.
"It goes to a general trend," he said. "Audiences are saying, 'remakes or sequels have got to be great or original if you want us to show up.'"
The film could get a lift from overseas' crowds. "Ben-Hur" picked up $10.7 million in roughly a third of the global markets. Sources believe it could ultimately gross $100 million in foreign territories, which wouldn't be enough to make its investors whole, but should stop some of the bleeding.
With "Ben-Hur" faltering, "Suicide Squad" managed to snag first place for the third consecutive weekend. The story of a band of super villains netted $20.7 million, pushing the Warner Bros. release's domestic total to $262.3 million. Not adjusted for inflation, the film is the second-highest grossing stateside release of Will Smith's career, behind "Independence Day's" $306.2 million haul.
"We're in great shape," said Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros. distribution executive vice president. "We're well on our way to $300 million domestically."
The weekend also marked the launch of "War Dogs," an off-beat comedy about weapons dealers, picked up a modest $14.3 million for a fourth-place finish. Warner Bros. backed the project, partly as a show of appreciation for all the money director Todd Phillips minted from "The Hangover" trilogy. It cost north of $45 million to produce, and teams Jonah Hill with Miles Teller. The duo was tapped to star in roles originally intended for Shia LaBeouf and Jesse Eisenberg. Ticket buyers were 56% male and 51% under the age of 35.
"We're proud of Todd Phillips," said Goldstein. "He made a fun, smart movie that will leg out over the next few weeks."
With "Ben-Hur" making a bid for religious crowds and "War Dogs" trying to grab adults, Focus Features went after family audiences. The indie label debuted "Kubo and the Two Strings," an animated story about a boy and a monkey who try to find a magical suit of armor in Ancient Japan. It's the latest offering from Laika, the makers of "ParaNorman" and "The Boxtrolls." The film cost between $55 million to $60 million, and brought in $12.6 million in its first weekend for a fourth place finish. That's on the lighter end of openings for the studio, but the film could be helped by its strong reviews.
"[Laika CEO] Travis Knight and his team crafted an extraordinary film and it's rightly deserving of the tremendous reviews," said Jim Orr, distribution chief at Focus Features.
In its second weekend, Sony's "Sausage Party" held strong, taking in $15.3 million, a drop of 55% from its debut. That was good enough for runner-up status on the box office charts and pushes the foul-mouthed animated comedy's domestic haul to $65.3 million.
Disney's "Pete's Dragon" is currently neck-in-neck with "Ben-Hur" for fifth place. The remake of the 1977 children's film earned $11.3 million, bringing its stateside total to $42.9 million after two weeks of release.
The continued success of "Suicide Squad" and "Sausage Party" lifted overall receipts nearly 25% from the same weekend last year -- a period that saw the release of "Sinister 2" and "Hitman: Agent 47." Critics have slammed this year's crop of blockbusters as dull and unimaginative, but ticket sales are closing in on last summer's results and August receipts should set a record.
"This has been a monumental August," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with ComScore. "Normally, summers end with whimper and not a bang."