'Ben-Hur' Fallout: Film, TV Biblical Epics in Need of Redemption

Paramount Pictures; Photofest

MGM and Paramount's big screen 'Ben-Hur' bombed in its box-office debut, following troubled results for similarly themed movies and television shows.

The wheels are coming off in Hollywood's race to make biblical epics that galvanize faith-based moviegoers and TV viewers on a grand scale, as well as general consumers interested in ancient tales (otherwise known as sword-and-sandals films).

Case in point: Timur Bekmambetov's Ben-Hur delivered an abysmal $11.2 million opening at the North American box office over the Aug. 19-21 weekend, despite a production budget of nearly $100 million. The movie is based on Lew Wallace's classic 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, and not the Oscar-winning 1959 film famously starring Charlton Heston.

MGM put up 80 percent of the financing, and Paramount, 20 percent. MGM also added its TV president Mark Burnett and his producing partner and wife Roma Downey — aka Hollywood's most powerful Christian couple — as producers on the feature. But even their faith-based following from History's record-breaking The Bible miniseries didn't seem to help drive the film's box office.

Ben-Hur's failure on the film side follows similarly disappointing returns for Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings. Starring Christian Bale as Moses, that film was a disappointment domestically in December 2014, topping out at $65 million after a $24.1 million opening. The film, which cost a pricey $140 million to make, fared far better overseas with a $203.2 million gross contributing to a global total of $268.2 million.

Darren Aronofsky's Noah did more at the box office ($362.6 million) but that wasn't even considered a major victory. In the months leading up to the movie's 2014 release, Paramount had to fend off criticism in some quarters of Aronofsky's interpretation of the Biblical story.

"A lot of times when you're trying to market a film and you attempt to be everything to everyone — biblical plus event film — you become nothing to nobody," says box-office analyst Jeff Bock.

"There's certainly an audience for stories with biblical themes, which excite studios to no end, however, like any other genre, these trends are cyclical and we're on a downward trend right now. Noah, Exodus and Ben-Hur were all rushed into the blockbuster arena, and were all slaughtered by cinematic standards," he added.

The story on the TV side, meanwhile, isn't much different.

Since History launched its way into scripted programming with Burnett's and Downey's 10-part miniseries The Bible, the ratings record-breaker (14 million on average) has been the only jewel in TV's faith-based crown.

Burnett's and Downey's long-awaited The Bible follow-up, NBC's A.D. The Bible Continues, was canceled after only one season. CBS also tried its hand at faith-based programming with Burnett's and Downey's Cote de Pablo four-hour mini, The Dovekeepers. That debuted to middling returns last year and wrapped its run with little fanfare.

For its part, ABC tried its hand at a Game of Thrones-like biblical saga with Of Kings and Prophets. Picked up straight to series with a 15-episode order, the network slated it for Sundays in the fall before pushing it to midseason following a showrunner swap and a series of recastings and reshoots. It was canceled after only two episodes.