McGinnis: Two (or More) of a KindWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
One of the summer’s big disappointments so far is the thriller “White House Down” starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx. Directed by master of the blockbuster Roland Emmerich (who has plenty of experience destroying national landmarks in his movies) and produced by Sony Pictures, the film bowed to a fairly pedestrian $24.9 million weekend when it opened June 28.
It may not have seemed so bad if it had not also lagged behind another release from earlier in the year — “Olympus Has Fallen,” which featured the same “terrorists taking over the White House” premise. That movie opened with a $30.4 million weekend — not a huge advantage, to be sure, but enough to be considered a winner, especially when one factors in how “Down” was released at the height of the summer movie season, while “Olympus” opened during a period when sales are relatively soft.
Many movie fans may have wondered how this could have happened — two movies so close to each other, sharing the same base idea? But a quick glance over Hollywood history shows more than a few instances where multiple companies hit on a similar idea at a similar time. It’s not necessarily a matter of one “ripping off” the other. Sometimes, coincidence happens, and bizarrely concurrent ideas get developed at a similar time. Usually, it becomes a race to see who can get their project off the ground first. Sometimes, though, it becomes a game of chicken where no one blinks. Here are a few examples:
The Bug Battle: “Antz” vs. “A Bug’s Life” (1997)
It was a brave new world in 1997. “Toy Story” had just shattered audience expectations for animated films, so it stands to reason that every studio in town would be rushing to come up with the next big thing. Odd, then, that two of them turned up with a movie based around such a small idea: ants.
DreamWorks, in its first try at feature-length computer animation, released “Antz” in October. Centered on a colony in New York City, the film features a cast heavy on actual, bankable box office stars — Woody Allen, Sylvester Stallone, Sharon Stone, Dan Aykroyd, Gene Hackman and on and on — and a slightly more adult sensibility than its competitor.
“Toy Story” giants Pixar, then, released “A Bug’s Life” in late November, again centered around an ant colony, although with more of a basis in classic fables than the DreamWorks offering, as well as a more colorful palate. The cast, while certainly recognizable, were not quite the marquee names “Antz” had, either.
Winner: “A Bug’s Life.” Both films turned out pretty well, though. “Life” made slightly more money, but both got good reviews and were received well by audiences. It’s clear “Bug’s Life” has had better staying power though.
The Magma Mix-Up: “Dante’s Peak” vs. “Volcano” (1997)
At the beginning of the post-”Twister” disaster craze, where every conceivable natural catastrophe was being optioned for a movie, it stands to reason two different producers would hear a volcano pitch and say, “Brilliant! Here’s some money!”
In one corner, we have “Dante’s Peak,” released in February 1997, starring Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton, about a dormant mountain that suddenly erupts. The local residents don’t believe there is any danger until lava is virtually on top of them. Think “Jaws,” but with magma instead of a shark.
On the flip side is “Volcano,” starring Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche, about an eruption that centers in the La Brea Tar Pits. The movie is a fairly joyless enterprise with no real sense of danger or realism, not to mention some simply awful dialogue.
Winner: “Dante’s Peak” by a nose. It made more money worldwide and though “Volcano” was, stunningly, better reviewed at the time, “Dante” has aged better than its counterpart.
The Body Swap Showdown: “Like Father Like Son” vs. “Vice Versa” vs. “18 Again” vs. “Big” (1987-1988)
There has to be a story in how four different studios ended up with flicks where kids became adults and … well, vice versa. Body swapping has always been a popular trope in storytelling, but in the space of a year things really got out of hand as multiple movies appeared mining the same basic premise.
First was the awful “Like Father Like Son,” starring Dudley Moore and Kirk Cameron, which opened to awful reviews and mediocre box office. Then, a few months later there was “Vice Versa,” with Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage as the parent/child who end up reversed.
Not a month later came “18 Again!” with the great George Burns ending up in the mind of his 18-year-old grandson. Then, only a couple months after that came Tom Hanks’ Oscar-nominated turn in “Big” as a kid who suddenly becomes a man.
Winner: “Big,” obviously. When you’re basically the only one of a genre that people remember (outside of “Freaky Friday”), you pretty clearly have come out on top. But those looking for a dark horse would be well served to check out the underrated “Vice Versa,” with great performances from Reinhold and Savage.