‘Ben-Hur’ is the summer’s biggest flop. Here’s how much it lost.

09.08.16 3 months ago

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As everyone predicted weeks if not months ago, director Timur Bekmambetov's $100 million version of Ben-Hur flopped big time at the box office, making just $54 million worldwide to date (with not much gas left in the tank). So just how bad was it for the project's investors? According to The Hollywood Reporter, sources close to the film peg losses at around $120 million for MGM and Paramount, which co-bankrolled the film (though MGM put up most of the money and will therefore take the biggest hit).

Perhaps even more embarrassing? It made less than William Wyler's famed 1959 version of Ben-Hur, which took in over $74 million in North America and about $72 million internationally, for a grand total of over $146 million worldwide (i.e. $92 million more than Bekmambetov's update). And that's not even adjusting for inflation; when you take into account that the average movie ticket cost less than a dollar in North America in 1959, Wyler's Ben-Hur actually raked in over $848 million domestically in today's dollars, and nearly double that number worldwide (stats courtesy of Box Office Mojo). That means that in North America alone, Wyler's Ben-Hur outgrossed Bekmambetov's version by around $824 million.

Is it a little unfair to compare the two versions? Admittedly, yes. At the time of the earlier film's release, Biblical/historical epics were a far safer bet than they are today, with 1951's Quo Vadis, 1956's The Ten Commandments and 1960's Spartacus all similarly raking in the dough. Additionally, the entertainment landscape wasn't nearly as fragmented as it is today — alas, there was no Netflix or home entertainment market in 1959. 

Then again, that all goes to show just how wrongheaded it was to release a mega-budgeted Biblical epic in 2016, not to mention in the midst of a summer dominated by superheroes, blockbuster action sequels and cutting-edge animated movies. Obviously, the faith-based audience MGM and Paramount were counting on didn't care to come out either (or at least weren't effectively marketed to), which further demonstrates just what a rare phenomenon The Passion of the Christ was in 2004.

While taking risks in an increasingly risk-averse Hollywood is something we should all applaud, updating a dated historical epic that likely can't be bettered in the first place feels less like a risk than a bad investment. Unfortunately for MGM and Paramount, that's going to be the ultimate takeaway here.

As for the summer's other big flops, THR reports that Steven Spielberg's The BFG will lose somewhere between $90 and $100 million for Disney, Amblin and Participant Media, while Disney is looking at a loss of at least $65 million on Alice Through the Looking Glass.

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