Mirror Images: 9 More Occasions When Hollywood Made Similar Movies at the Same Time
This weekend welcomes Snow White and the Huntsman to theaters, mere months after Relativity's Mirror, Mirror preceded Universal's Kristen Stewart film in the race to produce live-action versions of the fairy tale that Disney animators arguably perfected decades ago. And odd as it is to behold this practice of two serpents eating the other’s tail, stranger still is the thought of a studio executive ensconced in a corner office, slamming his fist down on the old-growth polished conference table, and bellowing to the suits, "Dammit! Where in the hell is OUR Snow White script!?!?!"
Yet variations on this scenario are not so unique in Hollywood. Many of the actions surrounding these productions — wrestling over promotions, insistence of originality, chess games played with release dates — have played out for generations. Find below some of the more notable occasions when studio execs didn't let redundancy stop them from flashing the green light:
1964 - The Cold Shoulder War: Dr. Strangelove (Jan.) / Fail-Safe (Sept.)
With the Cold War at its peak, it came as little surprise that movies of the time might reflect the American public's fear, dread and paranoia. But these competing efforts bore many similarities for such wide, ripe terrain: Each had a major young director at the helm, a cast choked with stars, and a storyline about a rogue mission that may spark a global conflict. Stanley Kubrick’s ambitious Strangelove, based on the book Red Alert, took shape as a satirical indictment of the geopolitical climate. Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe, meanwhile, sporting more of a spartan stage setting and relying on close-ups, hewed closer to the tense spirit of its own eponymous source novel. Many people found them more than similar — and for good reason.
Result: While both are hailed as classics, Strangelove stole much of Fail-Safe's thunder both culturally and financially — a predicament made all the more curious since Columbia released both films. (Kubrick reportedly lobbied the studio to release his movie first.) And despite Kubrick and co-writer Terry Southern's comic vision of his novel, Red Alert author Peter George sued the studio over Fail-Safe, accusing it of plagiarism because of the similarities in the stories.
1989 - Paw Enforcement: K-9 (April) / Turner & Hooch (July)
Studio experts must have test-marketed for — and found — results showing audiences salivating at the prospect of comedies with cops involuntarily partnered with a four-legged ride-along. How else to explain these mirrored attempts at mirth? The cops are given one-note characters (Jim Belushi is a loose-cannon loner, Tom Hanks a fastidious short-timer) simply to make the dog’s entrance more compelling; both films even have scenes of the hound destroying the interior of the beleaguered officer’s car.
1989 - Plunging Returns: Deepstar Six (Jan.) / Leviathan (Mar.) / The Abyss (Aug.)
Was there something in the Hollywood water supply in 1989? Because executives sure had water on the brain that year, when audiences were actually given three identical deep-sea stories within an eight-month period. (To say nothing of straight-to-video efforts like The Rift and Endless Descent.) Incidentally, Deepstar was written by Lewis Abernathy, a pal of James Cameron's who was later cast in Titanic as the wisecracking best friend of Bill Paxton's character. In between their shared visions, MGM released its own deep-sea-alien hybrid film directed by George P. Cosmatos, (Rambo, Cobra), creating a viewing experience that almost produces the bends.
Result: The Abyss earned a paltry (by Cameron standards, anyway) $54 million, but it holds up far better than its lower-budget counterparts (Leviathan even dispensed with underwater photography; they shot in what is described as a “dry-wet” look), neither approached $10 million at the box office. Bonus points to Fox marketing for its poster touting The Abyss as "summer's most original adventure."
1992 – Non-Event on the Horizon: Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (Aug.) / 1492: Conquest of Paradise (Oct.)
The 500th anniversary of Columbus finding America was deemed ripe for the plucking of historical events surrounding the explorer. Big names were used, sweeping epic visuals were displayed, and colons were inserted into the titles. Yet strangely, a subject that had long amounted to a cornerstone of many Americans' primary education was passed over by audiences of all ages.
1997 - Blowing Their Tops: Dante’s Peak (February) / Volcano (April)
At one point in history, a tremor of excitement ran through Hollywood suggesting that volcanic eruptions would be next big thing. Universal gave us Dante’s Peak, a thriller with Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton loosely based on the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. Just a couple of months later came the 20th Century Fox version with Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche, a more traditional disaster film with large sets, a large cast and a large departure from reality as an eruption threatens Los Angeles. Given the lack of explosive imagery in Volcano audiences soon wondered why it had not been simply titled Lava instead.
1998 - You Bet Your Asteroid: Deep Impact (May) / Armageddon (July)
The prospect of our planet getting sucker-punched by a supernal rock form is the kind of disaster that carries the ultimate pathos: We are doomed, and there is nothing we can do about it. Unless you are Michael Bay, that is, because you'll just send oil-rig roughnecks into space to blow up the flying rock. Or unless you're Morgan Freeman, who, as the President in Deep Impact, collaborates with Russia to nuke the lethal comet. Crises averted? In one summer audiences were served up competing disaster films of similar size and scale, and who would have guessed there was an appetite for this sort of scientific chicanery?
1998 - Colony Thinking: Antz (Oct.) / A Bug’s Life (Nov.)
In the first real showdown between the established Pixar and the fledgling DreamWorks animation wing, ex-Disney boss Jeffrey Katzenberg claimed he was pitched the idea for Antz four years prior to his exit. Tension arrived when Pixar head John Lasseter said Katzenberg requested that Bug’s Life move its release date so as not to compete against DreamWorks’ animated title Prince of Egypt. When Lasseter declined, Antz had its release date changed from March '99 to just over a month before Bug’s Life.
Result: The bitterness did not hurt the box office: A Bug’s Life drew $363 million worldwide — more than twice Antz's global take of $171 million, yet both still proving milestones for both studios the viability computer animation.
2000 - Fourth Rock from Profitability: Mission to Mars (Mar.) / Red Planet (Nov.)
Talk about a studio not learning a lesson: While everyone is now familiar with the failure of John Carter, that release actually makes for the third time Disney has released a failed movie set on Mars – and all in the month of March (including Mars Needs Moms in March, 2011). Originally intended as a Gore Verbinski production, Mission to Mars wound up in the hands of Brian DePalma. Meanwhile, later in the year, Val Kilmer headed another mission to space — one said to be such a factual challenge to science that NASA backed away from assisting the production.
2006 - Sleight of Script: The Illusionist (Aug.) / The Prestige (Oct.)
Odd to think that studios would gravitate towards similar stories centered upon turn of the century magicians. Odder still that both would be critically favored and find strong audience reception. Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan actually spent years adapting the screenplay of The Prestige from Christopher Priest's novel of the same name, finally immersing himself in production for Warner Bros. following the success of his superhero reboot Batman Begins. Neil Burger's The Illusionist, meanwhile, debuted at Sundance in 2006, trickling out ahead of The Prestige in limited release.
Result: Both movies were warmly embraced critically and commercially and even nabbed nominations for their respective cinematographers Dick Pope and Wally Pfister. Neat trick, that.