'Ben-Hur' Faces Epic $120M Loss as Summer's Biggest Box-Office Bust

Ben Hur Toby Kebbell Publicity Still 1 H 2016
Paramount Pictures

Steven Spielberg's 'The BFG' and fellow Disney release 'Alice Through the Looking Glass' are other giant-sized summer tentpoles racking up major losses.

Ben-Hur? More like Ben-Horrendous

The ancient tale directed by Timur Bekmambetov is officially the biggest bust of summer 2016 and on track to lose an epic $120 million or more, according to sources close to the film and multiple box-office analysts consulted by The Hollywood Reporter. The Paramount/MGM release has grossed just $54.1 million to date at the worldwide box office since its mid-August debut, including a dismal $25 million domestically. While it has several major foreign markets yet to open, the pic is fading fast and will have a hard time getting past $75 million globally, say knowledgeable sources.

Ben-Hur cost nearly $100 million to make before a major marketing spend. The loss is calculated when comparing box office and marketing costs against box-office film rental and revenue from ancillary revenue (home entertainment and television).

MGM will take the majority of the financial hit, since it put up more than 80 percent of Ben-Hur's budget and much of the marketing spend (it did minimize some of its exposure by selling off rights in select foreign markets). Paramount's loss is pegged by sources at a relatively modest $13 million.

An MGM rep declined comment on the exact amount of its loss on the film. But on Wednesday, the company told stockholders it is downgrading its forecast for fiscal 2016 because of a write-down it will take from Ben-Hur in the third quarter. Previous guidance for 2016 showed flat to single-digit growth for adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (cash flow). Now, adjusted EBITDA is expected to decline 10 percent from 2015's $431 million, meaning a swing of roughly $50 million, the company said.

At the same time, MGM — home of the James Bond franchise and a rich library of films — is predicting an improvement in adjusted EBITDA margin (operating profitability) from 25 percent in 2015 to 30 percent this year. MGM's other summer offering, Me Before You, is no doubt helping to soften the losses from Ben-Hur after grossing $200.6 million at the worldwide box office on a $20 million budget. MGM partnered with Warner Bros.' New Line unit on Me Before You and was the lead studio.

And MGM has high hopes for its remake of The Magnificent Seven, which opens the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday before hitting theaters Sept. 23. Sony is releasing the pic on behalf of MGM.

"Although Ben-Hur's theatrical performance was substantially below our expectations, MGM remains in a very strong position," chairman-CEO Gary Barber said in Wednesday's guidance note. "We still expect to achieve considerable adjusted EBITDA and operating cash flow in 2016, which underscores the continued strength of our film slate, our growing television content business and our extensive library that consistently provides a significant annual adjusted EBITDA and cash flow."

Despite the pedigree of the 1959 original starring Charlton Heston, Ben-Hur was dogged by dismal reviews (a 28 percent Rotten Tomatoes score) and a lack of marketable stars. But it is not the only high-profile flop of the summer.

Steven Spielberg's family film The BFG was a huge miss, earning $165.3 million globally after costing $140 million to make. The movie will lose $90 million-$100 million for partners Disney, Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment and Participant Media, according to analysts and sources close to the film.

Disney's Alice Through the Looking Glass also bombed. The sequel cost an estimated $170 million to make but topped out at $295.4 million worldwide, meaning a loss of at least $65 million for the studio. Disney hardly is hurting, however, thanks to a string of hits, including the summer's two top earners, Captain America: Civil War and Finding Dory.

Sept. 8, 11:45 a.m. Box-office grosses updated to reflect earnings through Sept. 6.