[14 February 2014]
Above: A Bug’s Life vs. Antz
Ever think Hollywood is making the same films over and over? These many sets of twin films that constitute Hollywood’s Great Duopolies show no signs of stopping.
The sad saga of the “mockbuster”, a cheap film created to piggy-back on the success of a major film with a similar theme has become a blight on Hollywood for the past decade or so (although the concept of the mockbuster has been around since at least the ‘50s). However, the purveyors of mockbusters like Transmorphers, The Da Vinci Treasure, Pirates of Treasure Island, King of the Lost World and Snakes on a Train (to name a very few) can hardly be blamed for attempting these cash-ins. Consider the fact that inside Hollywood, even the big motion picture companies tend to release movies so similar, that audiences could easily be confused and even think they’re seeing double at the box office.
In Pulp Fiction (1994), Samuel Jackson’s Jules Winfield character claimed to avoid meats derived from “swine” because “Pigs are filthy animals. I don’t eat filthy animals.” Unlike dogs whose filthiness, according to Jules, is eclipsed by their personalities. When challenged about the concept of a pig with personality losing its filthiness and thus becoming edible, Jules said “Well we’d have to be talkin’ about one charming motherfuckin’ pig. I mean he’d have to be ten times more charmin’ than that Arnold on Green Acres”.
Jules might as well have reached for the apple sauce right away, as the very next year, just such a pig hit screens and threatened to outshine Arnold from Green Acres forever. It’s the story about a talking piglet who has lost his family and faces impossible odds on the farm and beyond. The name of the film was, of course, Gordy (1995). You thought I was going to say Babe (1995), didn’t you? That’s because Babe, a movie about a young talking pig who is separated from his family and facing impossible odds on the farm and beyond, completely overshadowed Gordy critically and commercially.
The question of whether we really needed two cute talking pig movies in the same year seems to have been answered based on success disparity of these films alone. While Babe went on spawn a 1998 sequel called Babe: Pig in the City (helmed by the director of Mad Max, no less), Gordy was never seen or heard from again. The whereabouts of Jules Winfield in late 1995 remain unconfirmed at this time. Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web might also want to watch his tail.
The year 1998 proved to be a banner year for these strange filmic duopolies. The stories found in both Dreamworks Animation’s Antz and Disney/ Pixar’s A Bug’s Life revolve around a young misfit male drone ant who saves ant society and wins over the ant princess in so doing.
The story behind the scenes started four years earlier, when Dreamworks SKG co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg was the chairman of Disney’s motion picture division, which means he was around when Pixar’s follow-up to the popular Toy Story (1994) was conceived and greenlit. After Katzenberg’s feud with Disney CEO Michael Eisner caused him to jump ship to form a new company with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, the first thing he rushed into production was Antz. Naturally Pixar’s Steve Jobs and John Lasseter were remarkably displeased.
The feud deepened with both teams making accusations and excuses and a release date war ensued. While Antz beat A Bug’s Life to the big screen by two months, the latter film significantly out grossed its predecessor. Antz made almost $91 million domestically against a $105 million budget (with a worldwide haul of almost $172 million) while A Bug’s Life made almost $163 million domestically against a $120 million budget (with a worldwide haul of over $363 million). Rip off or not, Antz‘s critical response has proven to be almost exactly as positive as what A Bug’s Life has enjoyed.
It wasn’t just kids’ stuff that was duplicated in 1998, either. That year’s Deep Impact was the story of a seven mile wide comet on a collision course for an Earth desperately preparing for an extinction event, through the efforts of its all-star cast. Less than two and one half months later, Armageddon hit the big screen, featuring the story of a rogue comet whose core is on a collision course with an Earth desperately attempting to avoid an extinction event by sending Bruce Willis and the rest of its all-star cast to blow the damned thing to what scientists everywhere commonly refer to as “smithereens”.
The plot thickens when one notes that Deep Impact was released by Dreamworks, while Armageddon was released by none other than Disney. Like Antz and A Bug’s Life, Deep Impact and Armageddon hold a similar critical response, but unlike the animated pair, the critical response to these disaster movies was really, really bad.
In spite of the negative reviews, Deep Impact enjoyed a worldwide box office take of $349 million against a budget of $80 million. So was Deep Impact the clear winner and vindication for Dreamworks? Actually, no. In spite of the fact that the Michael Bay-directed Armageddon was so ridiculous that it proved to be an abomination to God and man that virtually every viewer owed their brain a big apology for (much like Bay’s later Transformers flicks), Armageddon was the biggest box office hit of 1998, pulling in over $553 million against a budget of $140 million. What a disaster for 1998.
The year 1998 also marked the release of the prophetic social satire The Truman Show, which predicted reality TV in a remarkably cynical way by invasively broadcasting one man’s life 24/7. The film was incredibly successful, earning $264 million against a $60 million budget, a boat load of awards and great critical acclaim. The very next year a more expensive movie (costing $80 million) was advertised as a realistic and less sci-fi oriented social satire called EDtv, which centered around the invasive 24/7 broadcast of one man’s life. Audiences everywhere took a look at these advertisements and said, “Wait, what, again?” and EDtv was a box office bomb that earned only $35 million at the box office, mixed reviews and no awards. Surprisingly, people preferred seeing Truman’s Jim Carrey to Ed’s Matthew McConaughey 24 hours a day. Go figure.
Cute piglets, ants, runaway comets and creepy reality TV all hit the duopoly bandwagon to varied success. What’s next? How about the planet Mars? Mission to Mars (2000) sported the writing credits of the creators of Predator, the inspiration of the Disney theme park attraction of the same name, an all-star cast and the direction of Brian De Palma, not to mention the super-cool location of that russet fourth rock from the sun. How could it lose?
Well, Mission to Mars lost pretty spectacularly, with almost universally negative reviews and a Golden Raspberry (“Razzie”) Award nomination for Worst Director Brian De Palma. Further, Mission to Mars’ domestic box office topped out at only $60 million against a $100 million budget (although the additional $50 million earned overseas kept the film from absolute flop territory). Warner Bros.’ answer to Mission to Mars was Red Planet, a similarly themed Mars-centric thriller with the added bonus of a catlike killer robot running around making it a bad Martian day for everybody (particularly Val Kilmer’s lead character).
The robot didn’t help much (nor did Kilmer), as Red Planet got even worse reviews than Mission to Mars and earned less than half its $80 million budget back. Further, the science of Red Planet was so “off the wall” that NASA walked away from the project, refusing to be listed as scientific advisors to avoid misleading the public. While it’s true that no “Worst Director” Razzie was levied on Red Planet, first time director Antony Hoffman never worked on another film again, so De Palma still wins.
Strangely, Val Kilmer has found himself on one half of a few film duopolies, sometimes even as the winner. The film that made Kilmer an international star was 1986’s Top Gun, which cost $15 million to make, but earned over $350 million at the box office, in spite of its mixed reviews. Meanwhile, the similarly themed Air Force movie Iron Eagle (also 1986) cost $3 million more to make than Top Gun but brought in barely over $24 million at the box office (and received mostly negative reviews). While the take was meager (at least by comparison to Top Gun), home video sales were strong enough to warrant three sequels for the franchise (none of which starred Kilmer, though the crossover might have been hilarious).
In 1993, Kilmer co-starred as Doc Holiday in Tombstone, which also starred Kurt Russell as lawman Wyatt Earp. However, the original idea for writer Kevin Jarre was for Kevin Costner to portray Earp. When Costner left the project due to creative differences, Russell and Kilmer were cast and Costner went on to produce his own, more Earp-centric, film appropriately called Wyatt Earp with Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark writer Lawrence Kasdan brought on to both write and direct.
Along the way to the 1994 release of Costner’s film, the star went to great efforts to thwart the release of Tombstone by throwing his then-major Hollywood clout around to convince most every major studio not to distribute the other movie. In fact, Kilmer only received the part after first-choice Willem Dafoe was let go to secure Buena Vista’s distribution (the Disney company wanted to avoid controversy related to the star of The Last Temptation of Christ).
In the end, Tombstone, which hit theaters six months before Wyatt Earp’s June 1994 release, received largely positive reviews and more than doubled its $25 million budget. Wyatt Earp, on the other hand, cost more to make at $63 million than Tombstone’s final earnings of $56 million. Coincidentally, Wyatt Earp’s box office take was $25 million, the same amount as Tombstone’s budget. The film received mixed-to-negative reviews and was nominated for five Razzie awards, winning both Worst Actor (Costner) and Worst Remake or Sequel (although this bio-pic was not really a remake or sequel). Somewhat ironically, the only aspect of Wyatt Earp that received consistent praise was Dennis Quaid’s portrayal of Doc Holiday, the part he shared with Kilmer.
The very next year, Costner starred in Waterworld. Enough said.
In 1997, virtually the same film was made twice in Volcano and Dante’s Peak, both disaster movies about surprise volcanos appearing in heavily populated urban areas. Volcano released in April of 1997, featured Tommy Lee Jones and Don Cheadle battling some very selective lava flows that burned or melted everything in the streets of Los Angeles, but could easily be contained by short concrete dividers. Dante’s Peak released in February of the same year, features Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton battling lava and ash, not to mention an acidic lake that melts the boats of escapees. Sounds like they could have used some of those magical concrete dividers from the other film.
While Dante’s Peak was the more scientifically accurate of the duopoly and the more financially successful (earning $178 million against a $116 million budget), it did receive poorer reviews in general than did Volcano. However, Volcano, which was also a financial success, pulling in almost $123 million against a $90 million budget and also received poor reviews, did receive one thing that Dante’s Peak did not: A Razzie award for “Worst Reckless Disregard for Human Life and Public Property”. Did they miss the concrete divider part?
These film duopolies, as opposed to the infamous mockbusters and ripoffs, seem to have started (or at least, come to prominence) in the ‘80s, with some of these “twin films” both being successful and acclaimed. Platoon (1986) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), both serious Vietnam War dramas spring to mind. As the decade came to a close, many of these movies didn’t stop at a mere duopoly with multiple carbon copies seeing release. How many times could audiences watch a Freaky Friday-esque film about a child exchanging bodies with a parent (or otherwise aging to adulthood)? Quite often if you look at Like Father Like Son (1987), 18 Again! (1988), Big (1988) and Vice Versa (1988). Movies about cops with barely tamed dogs for partners sprung up in the late ‘80s with Jim Belushi starring in K-9 and Tom Hanks in Turner & Hooch (both 1989). Chuck Norris later followed the trend in 1995’s Top Dog.
That late ‘80s trend went off the (very) deep end with a cornucopia of scary undersea creature movies all being released in the same year. If you can’t get enough of those, take a good, long look at The Abyss (1989), Leviathan (1989), DeepStar Six (1989), The Evil Below (1989), Lords of the Deep (1989) and The Rift (1989). That, my friends, is a lot of seasickness.
The next decade may have reduced the number of carbon-copy films by a fraction, but showed no signs of letting up. The year of 1991 apparently required not one, but two films about the scourge of Sherwood Forest in both Robin Hood and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. While Prince of Thieves was a major box office hit (earning $390 million against its $48 million budget) and helped its star Kevin Costner gain his aforementioned Hollywood clout, the other film was only released theatrically overseas, instead debuting on the Fox TV network in the USA (in spite of the fact that it starred Uma Thurman).
To celebrate the half-millennium since Columbus set foot in the new world, competing studios released two movies based on that event in 1492: Conquest of Paradise and Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (both 1992). Audiences apparently didn’t need either of them, as both lost almost $40 million dollars of their under $50 million budgets.
Aside from the previously mentioned standouts, one other duopoly from the mid-‘90s bears honorable mention in the collective of Showgirls (1995) and Striptease (1996), two of the few films in this article that are best watched with the mute button pressed. Showgirls, all about exotic dancers, is notoriously listed as one of the worst films ever made, having received almost universally negative reviews, and is widely regarded as the end of star Elizabeth Berkley’s career as well as leading directly to the collapse of its studio Carolco (aided, in part, by the high-profile flop Cutthroat Island). Showgirls was nominated for a record 13 Razzie awards and won seven (including Worst Picture).
The following year’s Striptease, starring Demi Moore was also a critical failure and received seven Razzie nominations and won six (also including Worst Picture). However, while Showgirls failed to earn back its $45 million budget, Striptease pulled in over $113 million against a $40 million budget. Hey, both films may have been bad, but Demi must have just been irresistible to audiences with or without audio.
In the new millennium the trend has hardly let up, although mockbusters have taken a larger slice of the pie that duopolies once had (in numbers, if not dollars). As the century changed over, twin spoofs of 1996’s Scream (and a plethora of other horror flicks) were released in the form of Scary Movie and Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday the Thirteenth (both 2000). The former received a wide release and spawned several sequels, while the latter was released straight to video and was worse reviewed than even Showgirls.
As the decade progressed, twin films became more similar and harder to cry coincidence over than Babe and Gordy. Finding Nemo (2003) and Shark Tale (2004) again pitted Disney/Pixar against Dreamworks Animation for remarkably similar computer animated underwater films. Chasing Liberty and First Daughter (both 2004) were romantic comedies featuring the President of the United States’ daughter. The Cave and The Descent (both 2005) both center around spelunkers who encounter terrifying monsters at underground depths.
The Poseidon Adventure (2005) and Poseidon (2006) were both remakes of The Poseidon Adventure (1972), or, at least, both adaptations of the 1969 novel of the same name. United 93 and World Trade Center (both 2006) depicted the events of September 11th, 2011. Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008) and Repo Men (2010), amazingly, both center around agents sent to repossess the transplanted organs of still-living people who have defaulted on their debts.
As that decade came to a close, audiences were given the dubious choice between Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Observe and Report (both 2009), each of which focused on a portly mall security officer and his misadventures. Seth Rogen, star of Observe and Report, admitted that the productions were aware of each other and even compared notes to ensure they didn’t appear to be the same film. While Paul Blart: Mall Cop is a much more family-oriented picture, Observe and Report is a more dark comedy in the vein of The Cable Guy.
Rogen went so far as to spoof the films’ similarities while hosting Saturday Night Live in promotion of his movie. In spite of this, audiences apparently didn’t need both films, at least not in equal measures, as the Kevin James starring Paul Blart: Mall Cop earned $183 million against its $26 million budget and Rogen’s Observe and Report made just under $27 million against an $18 million budget. Black Friday, this was not.
In recent years film duopolies have continued to crop up all over the multiplex. Skyline (2010) and Battle: Los Angeles (2011) are both CGI-heavy alien invasion films with a cinema-verite bend. No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits (both 2011) separately depicted pairs of friends with benefits who had no strings attached. The year of 2012 saw the release of two completely different Snow White movies in Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman.
In 2013 audiences were given the choice between Oblivion, a sci-fi film about one man on a dangerous future Earth trying to unravel the mysteries of the fall of the planet, and After Earth a sci-fi film about one man and his son crash landing on a dangerous future Earth and faced with the mysteries of the fall of the planet. Not similar enough? Try telling the difference between Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down (both also 2013) the pair of which are about a surprise military/ terrorist attacks on the White House and the lone government agent attempting to protect the heads of state. Audiences apparently couldn’t tell the difference either, as each film proved to be a box office hit.
These many sets of twin films that constitute Hollywood’s Great Duopolies show no signs of stopping. As soon as one film looks to be a potential hit for a studio, a rival studio is sure to push a similar script into production. And with producers, stars and writers hopping from studio to studio, like gilded lily pads, the movie-industry equivalent of industrial espionage is in full swing behind the silver scenes. Katzenberg may have denied that Antz was a reworking of A Bug’s Life but Costner made no bones about his attempts to derail Tombstone in favor of his own Wyatt Earp. Further, any producer who has read a shopped-around screenplay can easily keep that idea in their head for a rival production.
Sometimes these similar films pay big dividends for studios. Audience confusion could save advertising costs as moviegoers pay to see “that asteroid movie” or “that volcano movie” without digging any deeper. Sometimes these films simply cut out a piece of the profit from the rival film and sometimes both films sink like… well, gilded lily pads. One thing is hard to argue with, however: it’s hard to imagine very many of these duopolies are truly the result of coincidences any more than one could claim that the green-lighting of Under Siege (1992) was because of the successes of Die Hard (1988) and Die Hard 2 (1990). Where will the duopoly trend end? As long as there is money to be made, why would it ever end?
So until a rival magazine (MattersOfPop.com, for example) launches a rip-off column called “The Subsequent Spool”, forming the (hopefully losing) side of a duopoly with “The Next Reel”, I’ll see all of you twins and lovers in The Next Reel. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am on my way to have breakfast with Jules Winfield.