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Studio praying wheels don't come off chariot epic 'Ben-Hur'

(From L) Actors Rodrigo Santoro, Ayelet Zurer and Toby Kebbell arrive at the premiere of Paramount Pictures' 'Ben-Hur' at the Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, on August 16, 2016
Kevin Winter (Getty/AFP)
Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer plays Naomi modern remake of the 1959 classic

"Ghostbusters" and "The Jungle Book" may have been hard acts to follow, but a new blockbuster attempts to repurpose the biggest Hollywood behemoth of them all -- the chariot-racing epic "Ben-Hur."

Paramount -- still reeling from the unmitigated failure of "Zoolander 2" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows," not to mention an underwhelming return on "Star Trek Beyond" -- is banking on a hit.

But analysts fear the fourth attempt at this milestone in movie history will hit the rocks on its release on Friday, with a cast too obscure to draw in box office numbers justifying its $100 million budget.

Early reviews of the film, starring British actors Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell, have been lukewarm, with Variety describing Timur Bekmambetov's remake as "sludgy and plodding" and various media dubbing it "Chariots of Misfire" or "Chariots of Mire."

Jeff Bock, a box office analyst at industry data tracker Exhibitor Relations, notes that the latest iteration of the Biblical epic will have to contend not only with reboot fatigue, but with the success of William Wyler's much loved 1959 opus.

"When you're up against that, you have to over-perform on every level, and at the end of the day, actually make a better film to win over audiences," he told AFP, predicting a disappointing opening weekend take of $20 million at most.

"The William Wyler version is still one of the best the genre has to offer and, unfortunately, the new version won't be able to compare, nor last the test of time."


(From L) Actors Rodrigo Santoro, Jarreth Merz, Pilou Asbaek, Toby Kebbell and Jack Huston arrive at the premiere of Paramount Pictures' 'Ben-Hur' at the Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, on August 16, 2016 ( Kevin Winter (Getty/AFP) )

MGM's 1959 take on the story of brotherly revenge, Christian forgiveness and chariot racing is indeed considered a classic, but it too had the weight of history on its shoulders.

The story began with Lew Wallace's best-selling 1880 novel "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ," adapted into a stage play which ran for 25 years.

It was turned into a 15-minute 1907 silent film before Fred Niblo's $4 million silent 1925 production, also financed by MGM and the most expensive movie ever made at the time.

Some of the biggest names in Hollywood turned up at MGM's lot in Culver City, California, to appear as extras in the crowd scenes, including Joan Crawford, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.

Wyler's update 34 years later, starring Charlton Heston as the betrayed Jewish prince turned galley slave Judah Ben-Hur, was made for $15 million, again a bigger budget than anything that had come before.

It lived up to expectations however and was hailed a masterpiece, picking up 11 Oscars and going on to make more than $75 million in North America alone.

Critics have voiced doubts over whether the latest version can perform the same trick, even with a second-half appearance of Morgan Freeman as a Nubian sheik adding some star quality to the cast.

Huston, the scion of a filmmaking dynasty that includes actress Anjelica and her director-father John, met Charlton Heston, and said at a recent promotional day in Beverly Hills he was "someone who loved the 1959 version."

"Even people who haven't seen 'Ben-Hur' can identify that it's the movie that has the amazing chariot race," he said, acknowledging the history weighing on the film.

The religious crowd

Early reviews of 'Ben-Hur', starring British actors Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell, have been lukewarm, with Variety describing Timur Bekmambetov's (pictured) remake as 'sludgy and plodding' ( Alberto E. Rodriguez (Getty/AFP/File) )

Paramount, which is co-funding "Ben-Hur" with MGM, is hoping the Biblical narrative will draw in the religious crowd, a demographic which in the past has been unwisely ignored.

While the 1959 version merely has the life story of Jesus as an offscreen context for the action, Bekmambetov has made the Christian messiah a star of the movie, not only showing his face, but bringing the crucifixion front and center.

"Part of the job we've been doing over the last few months as the film was being edited is going out into the churches across this country, across denominations, to show early screenings and get the support of the Church," said producer Roma Downey.

The 56-year-old multiple Emmy and Golden Globe nominated actress is entrenched in America's Catholic community with husband and co-producer Mark Burnett, and the couple are known for religious programming including 2013 miniseries "The Bible."

"Over the next 30 years, millions and millions of people will see 'Ben-Hur' and take away that thought of 'let's forgive someone.' That would be so great," Burnett said.

"When we did 'The Bible'... everyone said 'you guys have lost your mind -- who's going to watch the Bible on primetime TV?' One hundred million Americans watched it.

"We said before we ever knew that number (that) over a billion people are going to watch this and people said these guys are crazy," Burnett said.

"It was way more than a billion people. In China alone over 400 million people watched the Bible series."


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