Ben-Hur remake: Seventh version of biblical blockbuster targets Hollywood's burgeoning audience of Christians

Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov will be behind the camera, but there is no news yet on who will step into Charlton Heston's sandals to play the lead
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The Independent Culture

Just as a lantern-jawed Charlton Heston flogged his horse during the epic chariot-race scene, so Hollywood prepares to wring the last drop from a 135-year-old book by producing yet another incarnation of the Old Testament spectacular, Ben-Hur.

As part of the film industry's seemingly unquenchable thirst for religious stories, which have proved box-office manna in recent years, MGM announced the new Ben-Hur would appear in cinemas in 2016.

The studio, also behind the Oscar-winning 1959 version, has yet to announce who will step into Heston's sandals to play Judah Ben-Hur, the Jewish prince seeking vengeance after being betrayed and sold into slavery.

The new film, from Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov, best known for his 2004 Russian-language film Night Watch, will be the seventh version of a tale originally written by Lew Wallace in 1880. There have been two silent films, an animated version, a television mini-series and a Broadway production, in addition to William Wyler's famous movie starring Heston.

While Ben-Hur is likely to attract audiences regardless of their faith, 2014 is already shaping up to be a busy year for biblical films.

MGM's Gary Barber announced the involvement of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, producers of Son of God, saying: "Their unrivalled passion, creativity and success in the faith-based content space, will be a huge asset to the film."

Despite a critical panning, Son of God, released in February, won the backing of evangelical Christians and went on to make more than $60m (£35m). Darren Aronofsky's Noah with Russell Crowe has so far grossed over $300m (£178m) at box offices around the world.

Russell Crowe in the title role of Noah

Later in the year, Alien director Ridley Scott will film Exodus: Gods and Kings, his own imagining of the biblical account of Moses, to feature Christian Bale.

Heaven is for Real, which charts the story of a young boy who claims to have visited paradise during a near-death experience, is another example of faith-based films stirring movie-going audiences while doing impressive box-office business. Made for $12m (£7m) and starring Greg Kinnear, it grossed $21.5m (£13m) over the Easter weekend in the US and Canada, third at the box office behind bigger budget films such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

"This audience has long felt left out by Hollywood and it certainly looks like this isn't the case any more," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior market analyst of box-office tracking firm Rentrak. "The numbers will encourage studios to make more of these types of films."

Film companies have been searching for more faith-based films since Mel Gibson's controversial The Passion of the Christ, which tallied $612m (£363m) in worldwide ticket sales in 2004 and was made on a modest $30m (£18m) budget, according to Box Office Mojo.

"There's a core audience," Rory Bruer, president of worldwide distribution for Sony Pictures Entertainment, told Reuters. "And they're very interested in seeing films with a faith-based centre."