Box-Office Preview: 'Ben-Hur' Praying for Close Chariot Race With 'Suicide Squad'

Paramount Pictures
'Ben-Hur'

Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, along with numerous church leaders and faith-leaning veterans groups, are hosting special screenings for 'Ben-Hur' across the country in a push to attract devout moviegoers; director Todd Phillips' 'War Dogs' and Focus Features' animated 'Kubo and the Two Strings' also open as summer winds down.

Timur Bekmambetov's Ben-Hur the summer's final big-budget event film — hopes for a close chariot race with holdover Suicide Squad when rolling out in theaters this weekend.

But the ancient epic faces several challenges, including poor reviews and dismal prerelease tracking. Partners MGM and Paramount are hopeful that a strong turnout among faith-based moviegoers will prove tracking wrong and help deliver an opening of $20 million or better, according to some predictions. That would potentially put Ben-Hur in a close race for the No. 1 spot with Suicide Squad, which has topped the domestic box-office chart the past two weekends.

However, if tracking is correct, projections show Ben-Hur hitting no more than $15 million, despite a production budget of $100 million. MGM took the lead on the project and put up a larger share of the financing. The film stars Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer, Sofia Black D’Elia and Morgan Freeman.

Paramount is aggressively targeting Christian and faith-based moviegoers in promoting Ben-Hur, much as it did when it successfully sold 2014's Noah. (Studio execs say prerelease surveys don't always track this demo.) The pic is a reimagining of Lew Wallace's 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, not a remake of the classic 1959 film starring Charlton Heston. (Executive producer Mark Burnett has billed the movie as a "story of forgiveness with an underlying story of Jesus.")

Burnett and his wife, fellow exec producer Roma Downey, were the producing team behind the 2014 hit movie Son of God and the 2013 miniseries The Bible. The couple are among leading Christians who will host more than 100 premiere events across the country for Ben-Hur on Thursday and Friday nights, in partnership with faith-leaning veterans groups WeServe USA and Wounded Warriors Corps.

Downey and Burnett, along with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, will be on hand at the iPic Theater in Houston, where Ben-Hur will be playing on all eight screens during the evening hours. And in Orange County, Calif., well-known Saddleback Church pastor and author Rick Warren will host a screening at a local theater.

Warner Bros.' R-rated war comedy War Dogs and Focus Features and Laika's animated family film Kubo and the Two Strings also open nationwide this weekend.

War Dogs, starring Miles Teller and Jonah Hill, is the first film from director Todd Phillips since The Hangover trilogy.

Loosely based on real-life events, Phillips' latest outing follows two minor-league hustlers who become bumbling international arms dealers during the Iraq War. The comedy, which cost under $50 million to make, is tracking to open in the $12 million-$15 million range. Ana de Armas, J. B. Blanc and Bradley Cooper, a co-producer, also star.

War Dogs currently sports a 63 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while Ben-Hur is at a sobering 33 percent.

Kubo and the Two Strings is by far the best-received among the trio of new films, boasting a 93 percent Rotten Tomatoes score. The fourth collaboration between animation house Laika and Focus, Kubo is tracking to open in the low teen millions. The story, set in a fantastical Japan, follows a young boy who embarks on a quest to unlock the secret of his legacy and fulfill his heroic destiny. The voice cast includes Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa, Rooney Mara and Matthew McConaughey.

Kubo and the Two Strings marks Laika president-CEO Travis Knight's feature directorial debut.

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