With an estimated production cost that’s in the vicinity of $100M, MGM and Paramount certainly didn’t build Ben-Hur to fail this weekend.

But if there’s one Come-to-Jesus from this remake’s estimated disastrous $11M opening: It’s still a challenge for Hollywood to cross over a faith-based film to the masses 12 years after the $370M ($612M global) success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. 

Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings

Ben-Hur is the third big-budget faith-based movie from a major studio to fall from box office grace in the wake of Noah ($101.2M domestic B.O., $125M production cost) and the mighty Moses misfire Exodus: Gods and Kings ($65M domestic B.O., $140M cost).

The irony? Last year at about this time, Sony’s thrifty-priced, holy-roller title War Room made $11.3M at 1,135 venues; 63% less Ben-Hur’s 3,084 theater count. Ben-Hur‘s opening isn’t that far from where Sony’s low-budget Roman Centurion epic Risen opened on Feb. 19 with $11.8M at 2,915 locations. Ben-Hur will need to rely on the kindness of such Christian offshore territories as Latin America to raise it up, out of its red sea of ink; and that’s not an unforeseeable miracle given how these sword and sandal movies can make two-to-four times their domestic take abroad. MGM carries the bulk of Ben-Hur‘s production cross at 80%, while Paramount is only on the hook for 20%.

In all fairness, the marketplace is stacked against all titles, not just Ben-Hur, due to schools back in session the final weekend of the Rio Summer Olympics. Suicide Squad is back up at its original projection this morning with $20.2M (-54%) in No. 1. Sausage Party is down -54% with $15.7M in second. That’s fine,  but a tad lower than we heard for this Sony/Annapurna title.  Warner Bros.’ Todd Phillips action comedy War Dogs is looking at an OK $14.8M (B CinemaScore), and then there’s Kubo and the Two Strings which is the lowest debut of the four Laika/Focus movies with an estimated $12.1M (A CinemaScore).

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But just like the faith-based measured Paramount’s Noah against the Bible two years ago, leading to its ultimate alienation of that audience and short legs at the box office, Ben-Hur is being compared by reviewers (31% Rotten Tomatoes score) and moviegoers to the 1959 multi-Oscar winning movie. That’s one of the primary factors that’s curbing Ben-Hur‘s weekend business. Also, fresh face leading man Jack Huston isn’t turning turnstiles in the way that Emma Watson’s social wattage, and Russell Crowe star did for Noah ($43.7M opening). And of course, the sword and sandal genre has yellowed since the early aughts when Gladiator and Troy ruled.

risen

In addition, per our discussions with faith-based marketing insiders, there’s a division as to whether team MGM/Paramount fully swayed the flocks to Ben-Hur in their outreach. One thing is for sure: Both studios sold this to the faith-based and the fruits of their labors can be seen in Ben-Hur’s A- CinemaScore, the same grade that Risen received. Women showed up at 51%, 94% over 25 (over 50 was 46%). Whenever we see CinemaScores that high for a film like Ben-Hur, and audience breakdowns like that, it’s a good indication that the faithful showed up, as they typically hand out favorable grades for Biblical and Christian-themed movies.  And there are A-, As and an A+ (those under 18 at 1%) spread throughout. On PostTrak, Ben-Hur received a blase 77% postive score (3.5 out of 5 stars), indicating that the secular crowd may have weighed in, given its 48% definite recommend. Also, per PostTrak, Ben-Hur drew 63% men; 87% over 25. Risen fared a bit better with 81% positive score, a 66% definite recommend, and there was evidence that the Faithful turned up to that Joseph Fiennes movie as indicated by its older women turnout (54% women, 87% over 25).

ben-hur houston

So as not to alienate faith-based moviegoers, which was the case with Noah veering greatly from the Old Testament, MGM and Paramount made a point to hire The Bible shepherds Mark Burnett and Roma Downey as EPs. As part of Ben-Hur‘s outreach to the faith-based, Deadline heard that the couple hosted a screening of the film for celebrity pastors followed by a dinner at their Malibu home. Burnett and Downey’s Light Works Media website redirects to ShareBenHur.com where there’s a slew of celeb pastor endorsements for the film, from Evangelicals to Roman Catholics. Their social media reach ranges from 6K to 14M followers. Faith-based marketing firms Grace Hill Media and Motive were also hired to spread the Ben-Hur word.

Even as recently as last night, team Ben-Hur’s faith-based initiatives “were in overdrive” per one studio insider, with a sold-out Chicago screening, preceded Thursday by one in Houston which televangelist Joel Osteen hosted. Ben-Hur was aggressively screened to leaders and 250 pieces of content were created for grassroots efforts in individual churches. TV specials were produced around the movie and there were three Christian music videos, one of which was an original song by Andra Day. At Variety’s Purpose summit last summer, Ben-Hur clips were shown with Burnett revealing that the production had 40 spiritual leaders engaged as consultants, a portion of which visited the Rome set.

Faith Driven Consumer founder Chris Stone beamed to his organization’s members “Ben-Hur is an example of Hollywood getting it right,” pointing out that the film’s depiction of Jesus Christ “is love-based, not fire and brimstone” and was floored by how the crucifixion scene depicted “Christ taking Judah Ben-Hur’s hate with him.”

But there are some faith-based marketers who believe that the studios were more traditional in their promotion; that faith-centric trailers were difficult to find (The Christian Post’s faith-based Ben-Hur trailer pulled in close to 10K Facebook views, while the one on Light Works Media clocked close to 7K). Faith-based insiders criticize a majority of Ben-Hur‘s spots for focusing too heavily on the chariot race (one criticized them as being too “Jesus meets Fast & Furious”). “They’re trying to attract a younger audience, assuming they know something about the chariot race,” said another Christian promoter.

“It’s good to see all their pastor endorsements, but that doesn’t impact the average Christian moviegoer to attend. When they see a scene that openly proclaims the Gospel, and it resonates to the point where I can take my brother-in-law, who has lapsed from church, to finally get on board; that’s what provokes me to buy a ticket at the window,” said one faith-based marketing executive. And social media pushing alone doesn’t answer all prayers when it comes to steering the flocks toward Christian movies. It’s a delicate balance “about using your social message to spread the message of faith” said the same insider.

And of the faith-based promoters we spoke with, none of them thought having Burnett and Downey aboard Ben-Hur was sufficient to persuade the faith-based crowds to attend.

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What made Passion of the Christ work? Aside from laying the grassroots template for Christian movie marketing, many still marvel about Gibson touring the film, sharing his personal testimony, and meeting with church leaders. They even credit the film’s bloody scenes as the catalyst that attracted young male moviegoers.

Ben-Hur was originally scheduled to open during the late February Lent period, however, Paramount moved the film to mid-August in October 2015 (and announced at CinemaCon that they were pushing the film back one more week). Buzz spread early on that something was amiss with the movie.

While low-budget, independently financed faith-based films like War Room ($67.8M) and Heaven Is for Real ($91.4M) will continue to come down the pipeline given their profit margins, will Hollywood attempt another big-budget faith-based tentpole? Last year, Warner Bros. announced that Apostle Paul was in development with Hugh Jackman in the title role and producing alongside Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. For those who forgot, they’re the stars from that Kevin Smith ’90s movie Dogma which endured the wrath of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and was deemed “blasphemous.” Will the outcome of Ben-Hur give the Burbank,CA-based studio second thoughts?

There are those that keep the faith. Said Faith Based Consumer’s Stone “Ben-Hur is very important. It’s important to the studios involved, to Mark and Roma, and for the audience who needs a winner.  If it misses, it’s a real shame. But the sun will still come up tomorrow.”

1). Suicide Squad (UNI), 3,924 theaters (-331) / $6M Fri. (-54%)/ 3-day cume: $20.2M (-54%) /Total cume: $262.1M/ Wk 3

2). Sausage Party (SONY/APP), 3,103 theaters / $4.95M Fri  (-63%)/ 3-day cume: $15.7M (-54%) /Total cume: $65.3M/ Wk 3

3). War Dogs (WB), 3,258 theaters / $5.5M Fri. (includes $1.25M preview) / 3-day cume: $14.8M / Wk 1
56% men bought, 67% over 25. Overall CinemaScore is a B, which is the same as Phillips Hangover III and Starsky and Hutch, but higher than the B- earned by Due Date and School for Scoundrels. Under 18 crowd who were able to get into this R-rated Jonah Hill-Miles Teller pic gave it an A- CinemaScore (9%) while 18-24 gave it a B+ (24%). 24% came out for Hill and Teller.

4). Kubo and the Two Strings (FOC), 3,260 theaters / $4.1M Fri. (includes $515K previews) / 3-day cume: $12.1M /Wk 1
Despite flying in lower than projections, Focus Features and Laika get their first A CinemaScore, besting the B+ of The Boxtrolls and ParaNorman. Males-females both gave it an A at a 51/49 split. Those under 18 loved it with an A+ at 38%. Under 25 at 53% also gave it an A.

5). Ben-Hur (MGM/PAR), 3,084 theaters / $4.1M Fri. (includes $900K previews)/ 3-day cume: $11M /Wk 1

6). Pete’s Dragon (DIS), 3,702 theaters / $3.1M Fri. (-55%)/ 3-day cume: $10.8M (-50%)/Total cume: $42.1M/ Wk 2

Bad Moms

7.) Bad Moms (STX), 2,811 theaters (-377)/ $2.5M Fri. (-30%)/  3-day cume: $8.1M (-28%)/Total cume: $85.8M/ Wk 4
Phenomenal hold for the dirty ladies in their fourth frame. It’s gonna clear $100M.

8). Jason Bourne (UNI), 2,887 theaters (-641) / $2.2M Fri. (-45%) / 3-day cume: $7.8M (-48%)/Total cume: $140.7M/ Wk 4

9). The Secret Life of Pets (ILL/UNI), 2,404 theaters (-554) / $1.5M Fri. (-38%) / 3-day: $5.3M (-42%)/Total cume: $346.3M / Wk 7

10.) Florence Foster Jenkins (PAR), 1,528 theaters / $1.2M Fri. (-40%) /3-day cume: $4.3M (-34%)/Total:$14.4M/ Wk 2

Notables:

Hell or High Water (CBS/Lionsgate), 472 theaters (+440) / $770k Fri. (+299%) /PTA: $6K/3-day cume: $2.4M (+300%)/Total cume:$3.3M/ Wk 2

Anthropoid (BST), 441 theaters  (-11)/ $150k Fri. (-61%) /3-day cume: $507k (-59%)/Total cume: $2.3M/ Wk 2

A Tale of Love and Darkness (FOCW) 2 theaters/$10K Fri/PTA: $17K/3-day cume $33K/Wk 1

Morris From America (A24), 2 theaters / $6K Fri. /3-day cume: $17K/ Wk 1