Owen Gleiberman writes for Variety that Ben-Hur bombed because it did not have any “movie stars”. or not the right ones or some such.
I’m here to tell you that’s not the reason at all.
It has nothing to do with the actors.
It has to do with the fact the book Ben-Hur is practically unknown even in fundamentalist Christian circles today. No mass group of people are filled with a pressing need to go watch another cinematic interpretation of it.
The 1959 film might have been popular 57 years ago but a significant portion of the people old enough to have seen it in theaters are dead. In 2014 only 35% of the US population was over the age of 50 and the MPAA’s own 2014 report gives us the following chart;
The largest age groups are 12-17, 18-24 and 25-39; the age groups which successful box office movies are predominantly aimed at.
People over the age of 50 go to the box office only slightly more frequently than 2-11 year olds, whose purchasing power is held entirely by their parents (it can be rightly said that children’s movies are aimed more at parents than they are at children).
On top of this a major contributing factor to why Ben-Hur did well back in 1959 was because of the enormous success of The Ten Commandments (1956) which made $122.7 million from a $13 million budget. It led to a slew of similar pictures getting released of which Ben-Hur (1959) was but one.
It’s indisputable that Swords & sandals movies were big in the mid 1950s into the late 60s but American culture has changed significantly since that era. If a 2014 film based on an actual biblical story like Noah couldn’t bring in more than $100M at the domestic box office, what the hell led anyone to believe a movie based on something obscure like Ben-Hur was going to do any better?
Exodus: Gods and Kings did even worse that same year, bringing in just $65M domestically.
Adding high-production value special effects and action sequences into a biblical story adaptation didn’t help Noah or Exodus so why anyone thought that strategy was going to convince largely secular teenagers and college students to watch this movie is beyond me. It’s not even based on an actual biblical story. It’s a late 1800s piece of Christian literature that shared the bestseller list with Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
They could have put Tom Cruise in this film and it still would have bombed. It’s just not a movie which the market had a high demand for and that is the sole and only reason it bombed. It had nothing to do with the cast or the script. It’s because the market demand for the film did not exist.