It’s here — again! The opening of Ben-Hur tomorrow reflects Hollywood’s unstinting determination to plunder its past. Each week carries word of new reboots, remakes and re-imaginings: Splash, Papillon, Jumanji, Top Gun, Ocean’s 8, etc., not to mention all the superhero regurgitations. Why create a new story when you can mess up an old one? The producers of the new Ben-Hur answer this question by pointing out their remake is aimed at the faith-based. From the tracking, their faith will be sorely tested.
I kept running into people this week who were raving about a little movie oddly titled Hell Or High Water. One reason for the excitement, I realized, was that it was actually a new movie, not a reboot. It also happens to be very good. As with most mid-budget movies, however, it had a tortuous path to production.
The long and winding road of Ben-Hur, on the other hand, provides the ultimate recycling saga: At age 140, the property titled Ben-Hur has been a novel, a stage play (with real horses), two silent films, an animated movie, a TV miniseries, and then William Wyler’s three-hour epic with its chariot race that entailed a three-month shoot. The latest iteration marks the producing debut of Mark Burnett, who also has now additionally become president of MGM’s TV company. Indeed, some insiders believe that the objective of landing Burnett and his hit TV shows constituted the key reason for MGM agreeing to help fund he $100 million-plus movie (the embattled Paramount is co-funding and distributing).
Ben-Hur’s arrival in a sense epitomizes a confused Hollywood summer that has been at once auspicious and ominous. Ticket sales this year are up more than 3% and attendance, too, has gotten a bump. Still, there have been 15 mega-budget failures this year, almost twice as many as in 2015. There have also been more one-week wonders — big-budget movies that lost as much as 70% of their fans by the second week. These drops are magnified by the propensity of Imax and other large-format theaters to shift tentpoles to smaller screens after one week if they show signs of weakness.
So does this suggest that the major studios may waver in their support of the franchise strategy? No way, say insiders. Warner Bros, for example, which took the tentpole pledge 15 years ago with the Harry Potter series, is more dedicated than ever to its superhero mythology — and also more jittery about releasing mid-budget films. Significantly, seven of the year’s top 10 movies were either sequels or spinoffs, hence grist for franchises. The principal mainstay of original ideas are animated films — even oddball originals like Sausage Party, the ultimate non-family film.
The reception to Hell Or High Water is symptomatic of the perils and possibilities of small indie pictures. The script was acquired by veteran Sidney Kimmel and co-developed with Peter Berg’s Film 44, picking up further financing from Gigi Pritzker’s Odd Lot which, in turn, passed the hat to CBS Films and their distributor, Lionsgate. The assignment of directing it ultimately befell David Mackenzie, who is Scottish and doesn’t know Texas, and shot it in New Mexico. Some insiders are second-guessing its strategy of opening in as many as 32 theaters, rather than plotting a smaller initial release where it could have capitalized on its sterling reviews. In its second week, Hell will hastily expand to 472 screens. One reason why Hell, like other indie films, tend to go wide so quickly is that ancillary deals around the world start kicking in upon wide release.
Inevitably, at some megaplexes next weekend, faith-based audiences for Ben-Hur may wander down the corridor to sample the R-rated Hell. They may even find their faith restored in indie movies.