The box office trends behind the 'Ben-Hur' bomb


To say that "Ben-Hur" was a box office disappointment would be an understatement.

The remake of the blockbuster 1958 remake grossed just $11 million at the box office, falling short of the already-low $15 million projected. This spells bad news for Paramount and MGM, which together spent $100 million to produce the film, and tens of millions of dollars more to market it.

And it's yet another data point showing that studios can't count on familiar brands to break through the noise and draw audiences if a film simply isn't good. "Ben-Hur" scored a 28 percent critics' rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Paramount reduced its exposure to risk by co-financing Ben-Hur with MGM, but this weekend's results push Viacom's studio further into the loser category after earlier this year "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "Zoolander" sequels fell flat. "The problem at Paramount is truly shocking," wrote analyst Michael Nathanson on in anticipation of the film opening on Friday. "Paramount's profits in FY2016 dropped by nearly $500M in a year with the studio poised to lose over $350M this year. Short of firing the entire Paramount leadership team, there is little a new CEO could do quickly to improve its film pipeline."

And this is a year with the biggest gap between studio leaders and laggards this century. A 20-percentage point gap exists between Disney, with 27 percent market share, and Paramount and Sony, which each have just 7 percent box office share this year.

While the summer box office is down 2 percent compared to the same period last year, the total U.S. box office to date is actually up 5 percent. So, what exactly is happening with the box office?

Rodrigo Santoro portraying Jesus in a scene from "Ben-Hur."
Philippe Antonello | Paramount Pictures | AP, File

Blockbuster performance is less concentrated in the summer, which was once the key season for distributing the biggest-budget franchise fare. "It's not a seasonal business anymore. We're talking about a year-round release schedule," says BoxOffice Media's Daniel Loria. Last year's biggest movie was "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," which hit theaters in December. Fox's R-rated superhero flick "Deadpool," was released in February, and Warner Bros. "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" are among the top films of the year.

There's sequel and remake fatigue, with 17 this summer compared to 11 sequels and remakes last summer, and 13 the summer before, according to ComScore. The bar to get consumers to make the trip to theaters is higher than ever, with growing competition from a seemingly limitless stream of new shows hitting Netflix and Amazon. And thanks to social media, word of a bad movie spreads faster than ever. So, negative reviews like those that plagued "Ben-Hur," or negative word of mouth, can ruin a film's prospects before it's released.