Yachna N. asks: Why do movie studios release near identical movies at the same time?
“Twin films” is the term used to describe a peculiar Hollywood phenomenon that just about every year sees different major studios releasing movies with almost identical plots and themes to their competitors current offerings. Popular examples of twin films include Deep Impact and Armageddon, two films released within weeks of one another that centred around saving the world from a giant meteor. Other popular examples include A Bug’s Life and Antz – animated films about ants rebelling against their hive. Then there’s Dante’s Inferno and Volcano – both of which are disaster films about volcanic eruptions. (As an idea of how common this is in Hollywood, all of these films were released between 1997 and 1998.)
Or how about Chasing Liberty and First Daughter, two romantic comedies released in 2004 centered around the idea of the romantic escapades of the President’s rebellious teenage daughter. Sticking with the White House, we have the March 22, 2013 release of Olympus Has Fallen followed by the shockingly similar June 8, 2013 film White House Down, which, to be fair, are both mostly just “Die Hard in the White House”.
While it’s tempting to think this is something of a modern phenomenon deriving from the popular meme that Hollywood has run out of ideas, in truth, twin films are as old as the film industry itself. So how do these come about?
It turns out there are a variety of things that may result in a twin film, with everything from corporate espionage to pure coincidence coming into play. For example, one of the most famous films of all time, Gone With the Wind, is also one of the most noteworthy twin films in history. In this case, famed actress Bette Davis failed to secure the role of Scarlett O’Hara in MGM’s Gone With the Wind. Looking to make their own Civil War film, Warner Brothers snapped up the rights to a Broadway play called Jezebel, which, like Gone With the Wind, was all about a fiercely independent southern woman during the Civil War. They then cast Davis in the title role and slapped together a film as quickly as possible in order to get it out before Gone With the Wind.
They were successful in this endeavor, with the film being a hit and Davis even winning an Oscar for her role in the movie. However, while Jezebel was well received, it was soon eclipsed by its twin film, Gone With the Wind, which would set a record for the most Academy Awards and nominations, sell around 25 million tickets from 1939-1940, and then be re-issued in 1941 and 1942 bringing the total up to just shy of an astounding 60 million tickets sold. This made it the highest grossing film ever made up to that point. In fact, it is still generally considered such after adjusting for inflation.
(To be fair to recent films like Avatar that have come close to the mark when adjusting for inflation, Gone With the Wind has been re-released many times over the years continuing to pad the numbers; without those re-releases, it would no longer hold the top spot; so it’s possible many decades from now a few of those other films might surpass it if they ultimately show some semblance of staying power. Although, I don’t think anyone’s holding their breath about the current #6, Furious 7, benefiting from a flurry of re-releases over the coming decades…)
In any event, other twin films alleged to have surfaced as a result of intentional corporate shenanigans include the aforementioned Deep Impact and Armageddon, largely because the latter film mysteriously went into production just weeks after Deep Impact was announced. A lawsuit was threatened as a result, but ultimately nothing ever came of it.
Likewise, it’s long been rumored that the idea for the Dreamworks film Antz was stolen from Disney by Jeffrey Katzenberg, the then CEO of the studio. Prior to working for Dreamworks, Katzenberg had worked for Disney and it’s alleged that when he jumped ship, he took an idea Disney had been working on about an animated film about a non-conformist ant and made it his own. Again, nothing ever came of the allegations and it’s still not clear which studio had the idea first.
Another reason for twins films coming to be is just timing of some event or the like. For example, this is the proposed explanation for why Hollywood decided to release two competing movies chronicling the life of Christopher Columbus in 1992. These movies, 1492: Conquest of Paradise and Christopher Columbus: The Discovery were both advertised as celebrating the 500th anniversary of the “discovery” of America. (See: The Truth About Christopher Columbus)
Twin films can also arise as a result of studios wanting to cover or delve into the same currently en vogue topic at the time, but not necessarily having been inspired by the knowledge that another studio was working on something similar. (With the number of people working on movies, studios pretty much always know what other studios are developing at any given moment, whether they widely announce a project or not.) Notable examples of this are the films The Truman Show and EDtv released in 1998 and 1999 respectively. Both of these were made, as the British Film Institute puts it, as a direct result of an attempt to: “tap into the fascination with the then-nascent reality television”.
Then you have studios simply noticing that a particular genre of film is popular at a given time and attempting to cash in on…
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