The Atlantic covers (sort of) the Ben-Hur flop and the epic quest to sell Christian films

Let me start with a question: I do not know if the following piece from The Atlantic is a news report, an opinion essay or a movie review.

It addresses a topic that is certainly worthy of a news report -- the box-office flop (so far, I guess) of the latest version of "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ." Lurking behind this movie is a larger topic, which is Hollywood's ongoing attempt to tap into the "Christian audience" that turned out for Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" in 2004.

Studio executives have been chasing Gibson's "Passion" demographic for a decade and major newsrooms have been covering those efforts over and over and over. Like I said, this is a topic worthy of serious reporting.

Here's the crucial question: Is this "Christian" niche a $50 million or so marketplace for low-budget movies or a place where Hollywood players can find the magic formula that produces big box-office bucks for major releases that cost $100 or so? So that's what is going on in this Atlantic piece, that ran with this headline:

Ben-Hur Was Hollywood’s Epic $100M Mistake
The film flopped hard at the box office after studios tried to copy the success of 2004's The Passion of the Christ.

The following summary material is long, but you need to read it to understand my main point in this post.

The fifth film adaptation of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was a $100 million co-production between Paramount Pictures and MGM. It starred the relatively unknown British actor Jack Huston in the title role, was directed by the mid-tier action maestro Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), and drew largely negative reviews. Many critics noted the film’s supreme inferiority to William Wyler’s 1959 version of the tale, which won 11 Oscars and is widely viewed as one of the greatest classic Hollywood epics. Just the idea of remaking Wyler’s film feels like a colossal error in an age of tiresome franchise reboots -- but when you consider how studios tried to belatedly capitalize on religious audiences to save the movie, the existence of Ben-Hur seems all the more cynical.
It’s hard to understand who else Ben-Hur was supposed to appeal to. The original novel tells the story of a Roman slave who becomes a champion chariot racer and devout Christian after being inspired by the deeds of Jesus Christ, whose story runs parallel to the main narrative. The older viewers who’d be most likely to recognize the title would almost invariably compare the new film to the beloved 1959 (the movie’s audience skewed older, with 94 percent over age 25). Meanwhile, younger audiences, the demographic Hollywood has the toughest time connecting to, would have little interest in Ben-Hur on name recognition alone. What’s more, they’d be even less drawn to a swords-and-sandals epic set in Ancient Rome, which has become a deeply unpopular genre in the years after Gladiator’s success in 2000.
With no obvious age group to target, MGM and Paramount decided to pitch Ben-Hur straight at religious audiences.

Now, I will confess that I love the 1959 film, especially after viewing many of the documentaries that have been produced about it and its impact on how Hollywood began telling epic stories that center, at their emotional core, on the journey of one complex hero. (Also, I have not seen the new film and cannot comment on it.)

The classic "Ben-Hur" wasn't just an epic (more than three hours long) it was a PERSONAL epic, where some of the most spectacular moments centered on the face of Charlton Heston, almost full screen. If that final walk up the stairs of the demolished Ben-Hur house doesn't grab you, then you probably don't have a heart. I get weepy just thinking about it.

So who thinks that it was a great idea to have the maker of "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" remake that 11-Oscar classic?

So I am interested in this piece and in the issues it raises.

Back in 1992, I was doing a bunch of interviews in Hollywood as the movie industry braced for the Internet era -- which had not arrived, but many people (hello George Gilder) knew it was on the way. Over and over, I heard people state this baseball-framed thesis: We are headed into an era in which Hollywood would be able to make "singles" (great small-budget, indie niche films) and there would also be a market for "home runs" (as in big special-effects films for big audience films with buffo budgets). It would be hard to sell movies in the middle -- "doubles," let's say.

Several people -- secular folks and Christians -- said that they thought there was a strong potential for a "Christian" niche market built on hitting "singles." As several people stated, "born again" might even be "the new gay."

But when the "Passion" hit -- earning $600-million plus -- everyone started thinking that Christians might show up in "home run" numbers. The epic quest began to tap that demographic.

But who would make those movies? Love him or hate him, Mel Gibson is an A-list talent on several levels -- especially when he is sober and going to Confession. Who else has the talent and clout to make "home runs" that will appeal to traditional religious believers?

So read this Atlantic piece with that framework in mind. It certainly appears that the author of this piece -- David Sims -- knows what he is talking about.

However, as I read deeper and deeper into this piece I found myself wondering: Is this full of his opinions or are we reading material built on solid reporting? Who did he interview? Who is providing all of these facts about the new production? I end up wanting to praise and question this piece, at the same time.

Check out this passage, focusing on lessons learned from Gibson and the world of smaller "Christian" movies:

In 2004, Gibson’s roadshow tour for The Passion of the Christ saw him visiting church groups and giving impassioned speeches about the film (which Hollywood studios refused to fund or distribute). The result was an organic, grassroots movement that sprung up in the movie’s favor. But this year’s Ben-Hur marketing campaign was more haphazard, shifting to religious audiences only in recent months when it became clear word of mouth wasn’t spreading through the now-traditional methods of advertising (television, online, and social media among them). ...
That approach has often worked for smaller-scale, faith-based films. In recent years, movies like Heaven Is for Real, War Room, Miracles from Heaven, God’s Not Dead, and Risen have been solid, mid-size hits, earning between $40 million and $90 million in the late winter and early spring seasons, when the box-office market is less crowded. But they weren’t the $100 million epics that Ben-Hur was, nor were they hoping to draw the younger, action-oriented audience that can boost an opening weekend. Instead, they opened small and added theaters as popularity grew. Because of its huge budget, Ben-Hur couldn’t do that -- it needed to open strong like The Passion of the Christ did. But a glance at the relative success of all Christian-oriented films shows that Mel Gibson’s 2004 triumph was probably a bizarre anomaly, not some magic model for studios to follow.
Ben-Hur’s failure wasn’t just that it couldn’t appeal to Christian audiences. But its poor box-office take seems to reflect countless misguided Hollywood strategies, all of which have combined for a particularly lackluster blockbuster season this summer.

Amen. Preach it. Now can I know who provided all this information and these sharp insights?

I sure hope that someone writes a major news feature or even a series of articles on this important and newsworthy topic. This Atlantic piece left me wanting, well, something with more substance than on opinion essay, if that is what this is.

Who could handle this story? Does anyone trust the current version of The Los Angeles Times to take on that topic? Would Christian "players" in Hollywood, and there are a few great ones, be willing to talk on the record -- with mainstream journalists -- about this tricky subject in the current cultural atmosphere?

Stay tuned.

Please respect our Commenting Policy