Ben-Hur is having a terrible time at movie theaters.
Anthony D’Alessandro at Deadline.com has an interesting write-up about how and why it might have happened. I was particularly intrigued by a trailer that was cut specifically to appeal to Christian audiences.
See, the only advertising I’d seen made the movie look like a two-hour chariot race. I’ve never seen the 1959 version most people would be familiar with, but I could’ve sworn there was a religious theme in there.
I assumed that the studio, thinking that people didn’t want a sermon with their summer blockbuster violence, had scrubbed the religious elements entirely. They had already had a sibling rivalry, a quest for revenge, Morgan Freeman, and that damned chariot race- what more did they need?
The trailer for Christian audiences definitely plays up the religious side: Jesus is presented as if he’s a major character. This Ben-Hur looks like a completely different movie.
It’s not unusual to tailor different marketing strategies for different potential audiences- but this is extreme. D’Alessandro describes a studio that wants to have its cake and eat it too: religious audiences come for the uplifting themes, the secular heathens get their dose of PG-13 violence.
I won’t speculate why all of this failed. But it doesn’t bode well for other movies with religious themes. A couple years ago, Noah didn’t do well either, and was criticized for its treatment of the source material.
This is a shame. I’m not religious myself, but I find what and why people believe fascinating. Few movies examine these things closely, though. Biblical epics like the elder Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments imbue well-known stories with lavish spectacle.
In the 1980s, more interesting films like Monty Python’s Life of Brian and The Last Temptation of Christ were extremely controversial when they were released. Protests and boycotts were widespread, and the moral fabric of society was wrenched apart by irreverent revisionism. The comic book nerds of today have nothing on the throngs of the faithful.
Today, most movies don’t touch on religion explicitly. The only ones that do are smaller, independent releases, like Saved!, which ridicules religious hypocrisy, and corn syrupy offerings like Fireproof. Each has their own small crowd that will see and enjoy them, and never the twain shall meet.
Even when Christians and non-Christians see the same movie, namely the documentary Jesus Camp, they’ll see exactly what they want to. One side sees a fair depiction of their belief system, the other sees small children being brainwashed by a demented ideology.
Religion is a deeply personal part of people’s lives, and I can understand how seeing one’s beliefs depicted on screen can make people uncomfortable. Usually in these films, anyone who doesn’t agree with the filmmakers’ perspective is shown as an idiot, or worse. As if whatever you believe in should be blindingly obvious to everyone else.
These movies won’t change anyone’s minds, they’ll just reinforce beliefs people already have. Personally, I don’t mind seeing things from a perspective I think I’ll disagree with. It’s good to challenge one’s fundamental beliefs once in a while. If they don’t hold up, they aren’t very good fundamental beliefs.
How to get people who will disagree with your message to see your movie? I don’t know for sure, but I have ideas…