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Top Ten Box Office Takeaways: Why ‘Ben-Hur’ Is Biggest Flop Among Wimpy Openers

While "Suicide Squad" follows "Deadpool" as the year's second live-action movie to top the box office three weeks running, the sleeper hit of the summer is "Bad Moms."

Ben-Hur

“Ben-Hur”

Paramount

The studios often save the dog days of August for their weakest performers and sure enough, this weekend proved the rule. (In the past,  “The Butler” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Straight Outta Compton” did strong business in August.) Yes, “Suicide Squad” grossed over $20 million, as it became the first non-animated film to have a three-peat at number one since “Dead Pool.” But three weak new releases— “Ben-Hur” (Paramount), “War Dogs” (Warner Bros.) and “Kubo and the Two Strings” (Focus) —opened to less than $15-million.

Making it even more challenging for this trio of weak domestic performers to make their money back: None are scheduled to open in China, which is increasingly the second and sometimes biggest single territory for theatrical grosses. That’s a big deal in a studio world increasingly shifting its focus on a sure thing.

Will Smith Suicide Squad

The Top Ten

1. Suicide Squad (Warner Bros.) Week 3 – Last weekend #1
$20,710,000 (-52%) in 3,924 theaters (-331); PTA (per theater average): $5,278; Cumulative: $262,283,000
2. Sausage Party (Sony) Week 2 – Last weekend #2
$15,325,000 (-55%) in 3,103 theaters (no change); PTA: $4,939; Cumulative: $65,326,000
3. War Dogs (Warner Bros.) NEW – Cinemascore: B; Metacritic: 58; Est. budget: $45 million
$14,300,000 in 3,258 theaters; PTA: $4,389; Cumulative: $14,300,000
4. Kubo and the Two Strings (Focus) NEW – Cinemascore: A; Metacritic: 83; Est. budget: $60 million
$12,610,000 in 3,260 theaters; PTA: $3,868; Cumulative: $12,610,000
5. Ben-Hur (Paramount) NEW – Cinemascore: A-; Metacritic: 33; Est. budget: $100 million
$11,350,000 in 3,084 theaters; PTA: $3,680; Cumulative: $11,350,000
6. Pete’s Dragon (Disney) Week 2 – Last weekend #3
$11,331,000 (-47%) in 3,702 theaters (no change); PTA: $3,061; Cumulative: $42,892,000
7. Bad Moms (STX) Week 4 – Last weekend #5
$8,068,000 (-29%) in 2,811 theaters (-377); PTA: $2,870; Cumulative: $85,800,000
8. Jason Bourne (Universal) Week 4 – Last weekend #4
$7,980,000 (-42%) in 2,887 theaters (-641); PTA: $2,764; Cumulative: $140,883,000
9. The Secret Life of Pets (Universal) Week 7 – Last weekend #6
$5,770,000 (-36%) in 2,404 theaters (-554); PTA: $2,400; Cumulative: $346,772,000
10. Florence Foster Jenkins (Paramount) Week 2 – Last weekend #8
$4,300,000 (-35%) in 1,528 theaters (no change); PTA: $2,814; Cumulative: $14,406,000

“Ben-Hur”: How Many Bad Ideas Does $100 Million Buy?

When a film that was twice close to the biggest event of its time gets an expensive remake and opens at #5 and third-best among new openers, someone made a miscalculation. It’s easy to second-guess after the fact, but here are some musts-to-avoid:

Don’t redo iconic films without big names

In this case, director Timur Bekmambetov is smart and edgy, but moviegoers who remember films like “Ben-Hur” are more likely to give them credence when Martin Scorsese, Darren Aronofsky or Ridley Scott (all of whom have stepped into biblical waters) are involved. And for both audiences with memories and those who aren’t steeped in movie lore, a film like this demands a star of some renown to get them interested. When you’re spending this sort of money, spend more for what a big name can add.

Recognize that faith-based audiences are limited and wary

Sincerity seems to matter here. People involved who’ve established themselves as part of the faith-based movement (Mel Gibson and “The Passion of the Christ”) don’t need the marketing talents of “Survivor/Apprentice/Voice” producer Mark Burnett and his wife, actress Roma Downey, who have participated in more contemporary Christian fundamentalist films. Burnett now is President of MGM Television and Digital; MGM was the main source of money for “Ben-Hur” (still retaining rights when the 1959 film was their biggest original production ever). But consulting and creating are different things, and screening in advance and getting ministers to help with the PR only does so much. The effort can enhance a film, but it needs inherent credibility that this “Ben-Hur” lacked.

The 1959 “Ben-Hur” is (adjusted) the 14th-biggest domestic grosser of all time, and fourth-biggest Oscar Best Picture hit. Here’s how unusual this remake is: In an era when redos, retreads and updates are the new normal, most such Oscar winners remain untouched. Though the previous “Ben-Hur” is one of 16 winners among the top 100 of all time, it is the first to be remade at least for theaters. (1930s winners like “Cimarron,” “It Happened One Night” and “Mutiny on the Bounty” were redone, but they remain rare and long-ago).

And among the 100 biggest hits of all time, direct remakes, at least as theatrical releases, are rare. It didn’t click, but at least when Fox made “Gods of Egypt” they didn’t call it “The Ten Commandments” (the 1956 DeMille film was an even bigger hit than “Ben-Hur”). When a film reaches a certain level of awareness and impact, the audacity of trying to redo makes a film vulnerable to doubts about the result up front. It brings out the lingering resistance to unoriginal films that lesser known entities don’t face.

The makers of this “Ben-Hur” threw caution to the wind and worse. The one element universally still admired in the 1959 film (which isn’t as widely known today as other winners of its era like “West Side Story,” “Lawrence of Arabia” or “The Sound of Music”) is the chariot race. That stood out in the equally impactful 1927 silent version. This time, it is mainly a CGI creation. In this case, technology, no matter how advanced, lessens the impact.

With tentative remakes of “West Side Story” (Steven Spielberg attached) and possibly “My Fair Lady” in the works, lessons should be learned. Musicals, which live via the stage long after their movie versions, may be able to come back. Smashes like “The Sound of Music” and “Grease” were redone as live TV events to great success. But the original movies don’t necessarily resonate with younger audiences, so the risk is even more elevated.

"War Dogs"

“War Dogs”

“War Dogs” Bests “Kubo”

The two films combined cost roughly what “Ben-Hur” did, which means that they have less at risk, but both films at $50 million or more in production cost both needed more in their opening breaks to justify their costs without very strong holds and/or strong foreign appeal.

“War Dogs” at its core is a buddy comedy with the added smart-appeal of Jonah Hill and Miles Teller setting the tone. They bring less frat-boy behavior than earlier 2016 efforts “Dirty Grandpa” or “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” — grosses fell between those points — than somewhat higher aimed capers like “Three Kings,” “Tropic Thunder” and “Monuments Men.”

But the others boasted greater star wattage from the likes of Tom Cruise and George Clooney plus more draw for older audiences to overcome their similar higher-concept stories. Hill has established himself both as a lead (the “Jump Street” films) and ensemble player (“Wolf of Wall Street”), but Miles Teller remains a work in progress, and not the lead draw that Channing Tatum was with “Jump.”

Still it did best among the openers with a gross somewhat explained by the date of its release. But it also fell Saturday from the Friday combined total, alone among the openers. So with a $40 million domestic total likely the best guess, this faces a struggle ahead.

Concept art from "Kubo and the Two Strings"

Concept art from “Kubo and the Two Strings”

Laika Studio’s “Kubo and the Two Strings” scored the best reviews of any animated feature this year (Metascore 83 vs. second-best “Finding Dory” 77). Though it $12.6 million gross is not off by much of their previous wide releases, it’s the lowest (including “ParaNorman,” released exactly four years ago). Best explanation? Animation overkill, mostly at a high level of quality, has finally set in.

Looking back at previous Focus releases of such stop-motion features as “The Boxtrolls” and “Coraline,” all came in with much less competition saturating the market. All got to at least $50 million. Focus has to hope that the dearth of significant new similar films and “Kubo”‘s apparent good initial reaction will boost its box office along with equal or better foreign results. Still, it’s another relative disappointment added to this weeks scorecard.

Sausage Party

“Sausage Party”

Sony

Sour Notes in a Late Summer Weekend

The Top Ten came in about $112 million, about 5% down from last year when the second weekend of “Straight Outta Compton” at $36 million provided heft not remotely replicated this year. It keeps 2016 year to date around 5% ahead of last year’s strong results (which then saw a very strong fall and numbers for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” that won’t be equaled in December).

But the numbers that provided this total don’t look so good.  Yes, “Suicide Squad” grossed $20-million and three new films opened over $11 million, something few late August openers do. And two lower-budget comedies, “Sausage Party” (Sony) and “Bad Moms” (STX) are going to manage close to or above $100 million.

"Bad Moms"

“Bad Moms”

STX Entertainment

But both the holdovers taking the top two slots, “Suicide Squad” and “Sausage Party,” fell over 50% — the latter a disappointment after its strong opening and solid weekday grosses. The three openers are performing well below similar films. And well-reviewed “Pete’s Dragon,” which looked like it might thrive with strong audience response, still dipped 47%. Even Meryl Streep-starrer “Florence Foster Jenkins” dropped a bit more than her routine “Ricki and the Flash” exactly a year back.

“Bad Moms” and its 29% drop is the one standout bright light, with STX heading for its first $100 million smash (it should go some level above that, and with only a handful of smaller territories had already taken in $20 million overseas).

It is late August, and this year’s films faced competition from the still potent Olympics. But the potential was there for much better. This uneven summer is ending with a wimper.

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