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Movie Twins? Weirdly Similar Films That Came Out Within Months Of Each Other

Mar 15, 2017
Originally published on March 16, 2017 3:40 pm

The new movie Life, which opens March 24, is about astronauts who discover an alien life form and live to regret it. You could say exactly the same thing about Alien: Covenant, which was originally scheduled to open the following Friday — until someone realized that was a recipe for box-office disaster. Alien: Covenant will now open in early May, and that close call, crazy as it is, isn't uncommon in Hollywood.

Rival studios often stare each other down, refusing to blink, in showdowns that didn't need to happen. In 1998, Earth-snuffing asteroids were blown up in the nick of time by nuclear warheads not once, but twice: with much electronic beeping and enormous special effects in Armageddon, and slightly higher beeping and enormous special effects in Deep Impact. That same year, animated insects skittered onto movie screens in both Antz and A Bug's Life — and all of that just one year after dueling lava flows erupted in Dante's Peak and Volcano.

Hollywood is not a big town. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing, and movies that cost millions of dollars require many people and many months of development. Yet still they end up with Red Planet and Mission to Mars in 2000; two romantic comedies about presidential daughters in 2004 (Chasing Liberty and First Daughter); and two animated penguin movies in 2006/2007 (Happy Feet with animated dancing penguins, and Surf's Up with animated surfing penguins).

One film in each of these pairs will necessarily emerge victorious at the box office, but both will arguably be damaged by their proximity. So why bring them out together? Well, it can sometimes make a perverse kind of sense. 1992 saw rival movies about Christopher Columbus' 1492 voyage. (Entirely understandable, considering 500th anniversaries don't come around often.) And with everyone figuring there was a chance they'd sail off the end of the world, it was, at least theoretically, a good story. Still, both 1492: Conquest of Paradise and Christopher Columbus: The Discovery sank like stones at the box office, even though one had Marlon Brando and the other Gérard Depardieu (don't ask me which was which).

At least there was a reason for those to come out at the same time, as opposed to 2013's two presidential kidnapping movies (White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen) or 1985's competing high school nerd comedies (Real Genius and Weird Science), or, for that matter, dueling Christ-story musicals. Godspell was still a hit off-Broadway in 1972, and if it had waited a year, it might've been one on-screen, too; but put it in a multiplex opposite big-budget Andrew Lloyd Webber and it's bound to look puny — which is precisely what happened when Jesus Christ Superstar opened.

Hollywood history is littered with corpses from other double dust-ups, but sometimes lightning strikes more than twice. Three vampire flicks opened in '79 — Nosferatu the Vampyre, Dracula and Love at First Bite. And then there was the year ('87/'88) that audiences had to choose among four body-switching comedies: George Burns had an accident that made him, as the title had it, 18 Again!; Judge Reinhold touched a magic Tibetan skull and switched places with his son in Vice Versa; Dudley Moore took a potion to do the same thing in Like Father Like Son; and in Big it was an amusement park wish that turned a little boy into Tom Hanks. (Audiences only showed up en masse for Big.)

Now, there have also been times when Hollywood duplication involved a bit of duplicity. When Gone with the Wind was still auditioning Scarlett O'Haras, Warner Bros. decided to steal MGM's thunder by beating it into theaters with a Confederacy epic of its own. It bought the rights to the Broadway play Jezebel, cast Bette Davis as its vain, self-destructive Southern belle, shot it more cheaply in black and white, and opened it while Gone with the Wind was still shooting. Jezebel won Davis an Oscar, which gave Warner Bros. bragging rights in February 1939 — bragging rights that pretty much evaporated a few months later.

Close on Scarlett and Rhett's heels came two biopics about the guy who ended their way of life: Young Mr. Lincoln starring Henry Fonda, and Abe Lincoln in Illinois starring Raymond Massey. Biopics often seem to inspire a herd instinct in Tinseltown. Both Oscar Wilde and The Trials of Oscar Wilde came out, as it were, in 1960. More recently, there was a big year for another gay icon, with two stars not only doing Truman Capote impressions but telling the same stories: Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote and Toby Jones in Infamous.

Infamous was an indie, while Capote was from a major studio, which perhaps explained the overlap. That was also true of two competing blonde bombshell biopics about Jean Harlow in 1965. One starred Carroll Baker and the other Carol Lynley — two Carols in films released months apart called, believe it or not, Harlow and Harlow. It's as though the producers had a death wish.

Still, if films are sufficiently different in tone, there won't be audience confusion. In 1964 — after the Cuban missile crisis and with the whole world nervous about the Cold War turning hot — there were two movies about the start of World War III. Nuclear annihilation played straight in Fail-Safe and for laughs in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. There were no reports of moviegoers laughing at the wrong movie.

About a decade after that, for the first time in Hollywood history, wiser heads prevailed. Two best-selling novels about burning skyscrapers were optioned by Warner Bros. and Twentieth Century Fox. Irwin Allen, who had just made The Poseidon Adventure, suggested they do something that no major studios had ever done before: join forces and make The Towering Inferno.

Not that there weren't issues. Fox had Steve McQueen under contract, Warner Bros. had Paul Newman, and both insisted on top billing, which was tricky. McQueen also insisted not just that his salary equal Newman's but that they have the same number of lines. (You can almost feel the screenwriters divvying them up.)

Still, audiences got a bigger movie, and Fox and Warner Bros. got the biggest attendance of 1974 — roughly the same as for one of the Lord of the Rings movies. So everybody won, proving that it can be profitable to not go head-to-head. Which is not to suggest that Hollywood has learned that lesson: Witness last year's twin terrible opera singers Marguerite and Florence Foster Jenkins, and the not two, but seven Robin Hood movies currently in development, including feminist, punk-pop and dystopian-future versions. Because the gazillion previous ones listed in IMDB just weren't enough.

Editor Nina Gregory, producer Andrew Limbong and digital producer Nicole Cohen contributed to this piece.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The new movie "Life," which opens next Friday, is about a group of astronauts who discover an alien life form and live to regret it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LIFE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) That is beautiful.

CORNISH: So is "Alien: Covenant."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALIEN: COVENANT")

CARMEN EJOGO: (As character) Faris, please open up.

AMY SEIMETZ: (As Faris) I can't do that.

CORNISH: "Life" and "Alien: Covenant" were originally scheduled to open on adjacent Fridays. They'll now be a few weeks apart, but that close call has critic Bob Mondello remembering other times rival studios stared each other down and no one blinked.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: They are showdowns that didn't need to happen, Earth-snuffing asteroids blown up in the nick of time by nuclear warheads not once but twice in 1998, with much beeping in "Armageddon."

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

MONDELLO: And slightly higher beeping in "Deep Impact."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEEP IMPACT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Three, two, one, now.

MONDELLO: That same year, animated insects skittered onto movie screens in "Antz"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANTZ")

WOODY ALLEN: (As Z) My father flew away when I was just a larva.

MONDELLO: And also in "A Bug's Life."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A BUG'S LIFE")

DAVID HYDE PIERCE: (As Slim) Come on, Francis, you're making the maggots cry.

MONDELLO: And all of this just one year after dueling lava flows erupted in "Dante's Peak"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DANTE'S PEAK")

PIERCE BROSNAN: (As Harry Dalton) That is a pyroclastic cloud.

MONDELLO: ...And "Volcano."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VOLCANO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I know this sounds crazy, but it almost looks like lava.

MONDELLO: Hollywood is not a big town. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing. And movies that cost millions of dollars require many people and many months of development. And still they end up with "Red Planet" and "Mission To Mars" in the year 2000, two romantic comedies about presidential daughters in 2004, and even two animated penguin movies in 2006 - "Happy Feet" with animated dancing penguins.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAPPY FEET")

ELIJAH WOOD: (As Mumble) Yeah, see?

HUGH JACKMAN: (As Memphis) Oh, that feels good.

MONDELLO: And just a few months later, "Surf's Up" with animated surfing penguins.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SURF'S UP")

MARIO CANTONE: (As Mikey Abromowitz) Does anyone in this entire frozen wasteland surf?

SHIA LABEOUF: (As Cody Maverick) You've got to see what I can do. Please?

CANTONE: (As Mikey Abromowitz) You can actually stand on a board?

LABEOUF: (As Cody Maverick) You're going to be happy and everything's going to be good. And I'm coming with you.

CANTONE: (As Mikey Abromowitz) I can't imagine a better day.

MONDELLO: One film in each of these pairs will necessarily emerge victorious at the box office, but both will arguably be damaged by their proximity. So why bring them out together? Well, it can sometimes make a perverse kind of sense. Say, in 1992 when there were rival movies about the guy who sailed the ocean blue in 1492. Entirely understandable. Five hundredth anniversaries don't come around often. And with everyone figuring there was a chance they'd sail off the end of the earth, it's at least theoretically a good story.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) You are a passionate man, Senor Columbus.

MONDELLO: Still, both "1492: Conquest Of Paradise" and "Christopher Columbus: The Discovery" sank like stones at the box office, even though one had Marlon Brando, the other Gerard Depardieu - don't ask me which was which. At least there was a reason for them to come out at the same time, as opposed to two presidential kidnapping movies - "White House Down" and "Olympus Has Fallen." Or competing high school nerd comedies - "Real Genius" and "Weird Science." Or dueling Christ story musicals.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "GODSPELL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #1: (As characters, singing) Day by day.

MONDELLO: "Godspell" was still a hit off-Broadway in 1972. And if it had waited a year, it might have been one on screen. But put it in a multiplex opposite big-budget Andrew Lloyd Webber and it's bound to look puny.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #2: (As characters, singing) Jesus Christ superstar.

MONDELLO: Hollywood history is littered with the corpses from other double dust-ups. And sometimes lightning doesn't just strike twice. Three vampire flicks opened in '79 - "Nosferatu," "Dracula" and "Love At First Bite." And then there was the year that audiences had to choose between four body-switching comedies. George Burns had an accident that made him, as the title had it, 18 again. Judge Reinhold touched a magic Tibetan skull and switched places with his son in "Vice Versa." Dudley Moore took a potion to do the same thing in "Like Father Like Son." And in "Big," it was an amusement park wish...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIG")

DAVID MOSCOW: (As Young Josh Baskin) I wish I were big.

MONDELLO: ...That turned a little boy into Tom Hanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIG")

MERCEDES RUEHL: (As Mrs. Baskin) Sweetheart, it's 7:30. Are you up?

TOM HANKS: (As Josh Baskin) I turned into a grownup, mom.

MONDELLO: Now, there have been times when Hollywood duplication involved a bit of duplicity. When "Gone With The Wind" was still auditioning Scarlett O'Haras, the Brothers Warner decided to steal MGM's thunder by beating them into theaters with a confederacy epic of their own. They bought the rights to the Broadway play "Jezebel," cast Bette Davis as its vain, self-destructive southern belle, and opened it while "Gone With The Wind" was still shooting.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JEZEBEL")

BETTE DAVIS: (As Julie Marsden) Banging on a lady's door. I'm scandalized at you.

HENRY FONDA: (As Preston Dillard) How long must we go on like this?

DAVIS: (As Julie Marsden) Like what, Preston?

FONDA: (As Preston Dillard) Fighting and fussing all the time like a couple of children.

DAVIS: (As Julie Marsden) Why do you treat me like a child?

FONDA: (As Preston Dillard) Because you act like one, a spoiled one.

DAVIS: (As Julie Marsden) You used to say you liked me like that once. You never wanted me to change.

MONDELLO: "Jezebel" won Bette Davis an Oscar, which gave Warner's bragging rights in February of 1939 that pretty much evaporated a few months later.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAX STEINER'S "TARA'S THEME - GONE WITH THE WIND")

MONDELLO: Close on Scarlett and Rhett's heels came two biopics about the guy who ended their way of life, "Young Mr. Lincoln" and "Abe Lincoln In Illinois." Biopics often seem to inspire a herd instinct in Tinseltown. 1960 saw both "Oscar Wilde" and "The Trials Of Oscar Wilde" coming out, as it were. And more recently, there was a big year for another gay icon with two stars not only doing Truman Capote impressions, but telling the same stories - Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Capote."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAPOTE")

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) Humphrey had just about moved into the hotel bar...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Humphrey Bogart.

HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) ...Where he and John...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) John Huston (laughter).

MONDELLO: And here's Toby Jones in "Infamous."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INFAMOUS")

TOBY JONES: (As Truman Capote) And I was struggling to write a scene for Bogie (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Bogie? You mean Humphrey Bogart?

JONES: (As Truman Capote) Yes. And so John...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Wayne?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) Garfield?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As character) Kennedy?

JONES: (As Truman Capote) Huston.

MONDELLO: "Infamous" was a tiny indie, while Capote was from a major studio, which explained their overlap. Also true of the competing blonde bombshell biopics about Jean Harlow, one starring Carroll Baker and the other Carol Lynley, two Carols in films released months apart called - believe it or not - "Harlow" and "Harlow." It's like the producers had a death wish. If films are sufficiently different in tone, there won't be audience confusion even with similar plots. In 1964, shortly after the Cuban missile crisis, there were two movies about the start of World War III. Nuclear annihilation played straight in "Fail-Safe" and for laughs in "Dr. Strangelove."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DR. STRANGELOVE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Hey, what about Major Kong?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character, screaming).

MONDELLO: There were no reports of moviegoers laughing at the wrong movie. It was about a decade after that that for the first time in Hollywood history, wiser heads prevailed. Two best-selling novels about burning skyscrapers had been optioned, "The Tower" by Warner Brothers and "The Glass Inferno" by Twentieth Century Fox. Irwin Allen, who'd just made "Poseidon Adventure," suggested that they do something that no major studios had ever done at that point - join forces to make...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TOWERING INFERNO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character) The towering inferno.

MONDELLO: Not that there weren't issues. Fox had Steve McQueen under contract, Warner's had Paul Newman. And both insisted on top billing, which was tricky. McQueen also insisted not just that his salary equal Newman's but that they have the same number of lines. You can almost feel the screenwriters divvying them up.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TOWERING INFERNO")

PAUL NEWMAN: (As Doug Roberts) I want jacks on every floor.

STEVE MCQUEEN: (As Chief O'Hallorhan) I want to plug into your PA system.

NEWMAN: (As Doug Roberts) No sweat.

MCQUEEN: (As Chief O'Hallorhan) How about your emergency setup?

NEWMAN: (As Doug Roberts) Battery-powered standby system.

MCQUEEN: (As Chief O'Hallorhan) All right, now, can you take these lines and splice them into our two-way communication band?

NEWMAN: (As Doug Roberts) Sure.

MCQUEEN: (As Chief O'Hallorhan) And no problem?

NEWMAN: (As Doug Roberts) No problem.

MONDELLO: Riveting, though. Still, audiences got a bigger movie, and Fox and Warner's got the biggest attendance of 1974, roughly the same as for one of the "Lord Of The Rings" movies. So everybody won, proving that it is profitable to not go head to head, which is not to suggest that Hollywood has learned that lesson. Witness last year's twin terrible opera singers, "Marguerite" and "Florence Foster Jenkins." And the not two, but seven - seriously, seven - "Robin Hood" movies currently in development, including feminist, punk-pop and dystopian future versions because the more than 100 previous ones listed in the Internet Movie Database just weren't enough. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE GREATER LOS ANGELES ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF KAMEN'S "OVERTURE AND A PRISONER OF THE CRUSADES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.