December 7, 2011
Success breeds success, one of the reasons so many new movies resemble previous box-office hits. With so much money at stake on each movie, executives who can okay a project are reluctant to approve anything but tried-and-true genres and formulas. That’s why so many big-budget films are adapted from novels, plays, and comic books—in other words, pre-sold titles with built-in recognition factor. It’s also why Hollywood loves biopics: As Bob Verini pointed out in Variety, this year has seen films about Shakespeare, Marilyn Monroe, Georges Méliès, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Margaret Thatcher, J. Edgar Hoover, Billy Beane, and Aung San Suu Kyi. “Six of the past 10 best-actor Oscar winners and eight of the past 12 actresses have limned real people.” he wrote.
It’s been that way since filmmakers stumbled over each over trying to shoot fake battle footage of the Spanish-American War, or celebrities passing by in parades. But occasionally, the coincidences can be jarring.
How can the marketplace support two Snow White movies, for example? Last year’s Alice in Wonderland didn’t perform as well as Cars 2, at least not in the United States, but it did phenomenal business overseas, enough to push its total box-office take to over a billion dollars. Even a greenhorn could predict what would happen next: more films based on fairy tales.
Veteran producer Joe Roth, who also worked on Alice in Wonderland, is part of the team for Snow White & the Huntsman, starring Charlize Theron (soon to be disturbing moviegoers in Young Adult) and Twilight centerpiece Kristen Stewart. Casting problems may have contributed to the film’s late start date; director Rupert Standings was still shooting material a month ago in England.
That gave Mirror Mirror the chance to greet moviegoers first. Starring Julia Roberts as the Evil Queen, Lily Collins, Armie Hammer, Sean Bean and Nathan Lane, Mirror Mirror opens in the United States on March 16, 2012.
Production schedules for cartoons can stretch over three, five, or even more years, and once you’ve committed a staff to a project it’s hard to start over. John Lasseter and his Pixar colleagues began working on A Bug’s Life in 1994, the same year producer Jeffrey Katzenberg left Disney for DreamWorks, where he set up Antz. Although the films have markedly different characters and plots, Lasseter felt “betrayed” when he learned that Katzenberg was angling to get Antz into theaters a month before A Bug’s Life. (Antz was released on October 2, 1998; A Bug’s Life on November 25.) Katzenberg, on the other hand, may have been retaliating for the fact that A Bug’s Life would be competing against another DreamWorks cartoon, The Prince of Egypt.
DreamWorks ran into a similar problem that year with its asteroid disaster film Deep Impact, in which Morgan Freeman plays the President and Robert Duvall a spaceship captain who sacrifices himself to blow up a chunk of space debris that threatens the Earth. Two months after its release, Touchstone brought out the bigger, louder, and more profitable Armageddon, in which Bruce Willis sacrifices himself to blow up another asteroid on a collision course with Earth.
Sometimes egos can force competing projects to completion even though they might suffer at the box office. Buena Vista, the distribution arm of the Disney empire, released Tombstone, a film about Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, on December 24, 1993. Kevin Costner was originally supposed to star with Kurt Russell, but left to make his own O.K. Corral project, Wyatt Earp, which came out from Warner Bros. exactly six months later.
Costner ran into similar trouble with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, released in 1991. Filming at the same time: Robin Hood, starring Patrick Bergin and Uma Thurman. Costner’s version meant that the Bergin Robin Hood was shown on television rather than in movie theaters.
Sometimes films get made to mark anniversaries, or celebrate figures important enough to sustain more than one movie. Twentieth Century-Fox released Young Mr. Lincoln, starring Henry Fonda and directed by John Ford, on May 30, 1939. Nine months later RKO came out with Abe Lincoln in Illinois, with Raymond Massey taking on the title role.
Producer David O. Selznick was more protective of his projects. He threatened to sue Warner Bros. over Jezebel, an overheated Southern melodrama starring Bette Davis and Henry Fonda, because he felt it would harm his Gone With the Wind. Groucho Marx got into a protracted and extremely funny legal battle with Warner Bros. because the studio was worried that A Night in Casablanca, starring Groucho and his brothers Harpo and Chico, might harm its Best Picture-winner Casablanca.
What I’m curious to see is how many moviegoers will feel that seeing Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, set for release in June, 2012, means they won’t have to watch with Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, coming out later that year.
Do you have any favorite instances of doubled-up movie themes?
(Corrected the release dates for Antz and A Bug’s Life from 1988 to 1998.)