Zeitgeist is a funny thing. The fact is, as much as we like to roll our eyes at Hollywood’s lack of originality, and as much fun as it is to delve into conspiracy theories and gossip about who stole what from whom, oftentimes remarkably similar ideas bubble to the surface simultaneously but independently of each other, rooted, we have to presume, in some common unconscious impulse. Of course, sometimes it is just stealing, but that’s a tricky one to prove. Whatever the reason, when it happens in Hollywood and the wind is right, you get a stand-off: similar projects being made at a similar time, like this weekend’s “White House Down” (review here) vs March’s “Olympus Has Fallen” (review here) or "The World's End" vs "This is the End" (you can read more about 2013's apocalypse movie face-off here) that will inevitably be compared to one another when it comes to the box office performance/critical response crunch.
Who knows how often this phenomenon occurs, but occasionally some exec, feeling bullish about his project’s chances versus the already-announced one happening across town, greenlights the other, say, Dinosaur Holocaust Comedy, and the game is on. Release dates are vied for (with the accepted wisdom being that first is generally best unless it puts you in a wilderness month), star rosters mined, and directors coached in how to communicate just how very, very different, “Dino Death Derby” is from “T-Rex Terror Time” anyway. Hollywood moviemaking is more and more resembling a high-stakes craps game anyway, so adding one more element of risk to your gamble can’t make that much difference, can it? Here are 15 examples of other times that particular dice has been rolled, along with who won, who lost and a little theorizing as to how and why the chips fell where they happened to fall.
"Tombstone" vs "Wyatt Earp"
Shared Theme: The events and personalities leading up to the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral
Released within: 6 months of each other -- Dec 1993, June 1994
Different approaches: With the Oscar-garlanded success of Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” in 1992, not to mention star Kevin Costner’s own triumphant turn in the genre with 1990’s “Dances With Wolves” Hollywood went through a brief moment of mounting high-profile westerns around this period, resulting in this Earp vs Earp clash in ‘93/’94. But in fact the films are very different, not just in pacing and performance terms, but in terms of scope and ambition too, with “Tombstone” the more narrowly-focused story in the classical format of the genre, and “Wyatt Earp” altogether a more sprawling biopic in which the most famous events of the man's life take up only a small portion of its mammoth running time. Casting-wise too, the two films set out their stalls clearly, with ‘Earp’ boasting Costner who was on the A-list after the huge commercial hit “The Bodyguard,” and heavyweight (and “Unforgiven” Oscar-winner) Gene Hackman to lend it Serious Drama props, with Lawrence Kasdan in the director’s chair. To which, on paper at least, “Tombstone” duo Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, under the direction of “Rambo 2” and “Cobra” helmer George P. Cosmatos seemed decidedly B-grade by comparison.
Which was more successful? “Tombstone,” by quite some distance did better at the box office, raking in twice as much as “Wyatt Earp," and this off a budget far under 50% of Lawrence Kasdan’s movie. It was first out of the gate, of course, but it always felt like more of a crowdpleaser than “Wyatt Earp,” especially as it came in over an hour shorter. And when ‘Earp’ failed to gain the kind of awards traction it may originally have been angling for, there was no late-surge from the prestige crowd to bolster its numbers either. In the end, 'Earp' made back only $25m off a $63m budget.
Which was better? More different and therefore harder to compare than you might think at first glance, “Tombstone” still wins out for us by being the more lean and old-school entertaining of the two. ‘Earp’ is a fine film too, however, and if it’s a little bloated and self-serious at times, the wondrous, Oscar-nominated cinematography by Owen Roizman ensures everything looks amazing, and Costner’s performance, contrary perhaps to the offputting ego-vehicle image the film may have had, is a small triumph of empathetic underplaying.
"Mirror Mirror" vs "Snow White and the Huntsman"
Shared Theme: Rival retellings of the Grimm Bros classic fairy tale “Snow White”
Released within: 3 months of each other -- March/June 2012
Different approaches: In a nutshell, everyone sparkles in ‘Mirror’ while everyone glowers in ‘Huntsman.’ Ok, perhaps that’s a bit reductive, but the two films look and feel totally different from each other and are tonally from... maybe not different worlds, but certainly different continents. So where in ‘Mirror’ (review here) visual stylist director Tarsem Singh indulges an almost day-glo aesthetic of lavish, daffy and slightly bonkers costuming and set design, ‘Hunstman’ (review here) goes for steely hi-definition greys and blues to complement the grimmer, grimier tone in which magic is not fairies and elves as much as dead ravens and pervasive menace. Rival queens Julia Roberts and Charlize Theron reflect this too, with Roberts seemingly enjoying the arch wink-winkiness of her performance, as a petulant and insecure queen, while Theron claws and schemes her way through ‘Hunstman’ as the embodiment of beautiful, occasionally shrill, cruelty. And our Snows White? Well, K-Stew does her K-Stew thing and is not asked for much more in ‘Huntsman,’ with the surface empowerment narrative writ large and Stewart herself clad in armor and wielding a weapon much of the time, as a kind of Joan of Arc. But when a film dabbles with such notions and then sells out on them, we kind of wish it hadn’t bothered going there in the first place, so Lily Collins takes this particular ribbon for us -- not only is her Snow White absolutely not in any way emo, as an actress she arguably does much more with a lot less in terms of making us root for her.
Which was more successful? Both films made back roughly twice their budget, which, to contextualize, does mean a lot more people went to see ‘Huntsman’ as it raked in nearly $400m, and is spawning a sequel.
Which was better? Seeing as we can't vote "neither," let's just say that it really depends on what your particular bag is. “Mirror Mirror” is much more family-friendly-fun-times, to the point that we can entirely understand people finding it gaudy and annoying. Still, “Mirror Mirror” actually shades it for us (not saying it’s terrific or anything) because it kind of wholeheartedly went for a bright, happy, good-humored take on the tale, which actually feels like a bolder choice these days, and it has a certain originality in its design and approach that lifts its fluffiness even higher. ‘Huntsman,’ by comparison is a bit of a slog, beautiful to look at too, but in a more derivative way, in service of a modern-feeling faux-grittiness that it never really earns.
"Rob Roy" vs "Braveheart"
Shared Theme: Historical Scotsmen driven to noisy rebellion against the ruling elite due to injustices and outrages visited on their wives
Released within: 6 weeks of each other -- April/May 1995
Different approaches: The thematic and geographical similarities between these stories more than cancel out the fact that the are set in time periods separated by 5 centuries or so -- to even the less casual moviegoer, two movies with stars in kilts bellowing over the highlands is probably one too many. And Michael Caton-Jones’ “Rob Roy” does do essentially the same thing as Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” albeit with less blue face paint, in exploding a Scottish legend into the dramatic tale of the struggle of the oppressed masses against the toffs/Enlishmen who keep them down. Liam Neeson and Gibson are on a par in many ways as the frontmen of each, but as we recall there’s a little humor in “Braveheart” that communicates William Wallace’s charm and charisma to us, something we never quite got from Neeson’s Rob Roy. However “Rob Roy” wins in the villain stakes with Tim Roth really quite stealing the show by managing to be menacing in one of those daft 18th century wigs.
Which was more successful? ”Braveheart.” First to screens by a slim margin, the film took about treble its production budget and won 5 Oscars, while “Rob Roy” barely made it into the black and even at the time was critically regarded as the lesser film.
Which was better? “Braveheart.” It’s become fashionable to diss the Gibson movie (the worst film ever to win best picture, Empire? Really?) but it’s still a very fine piece of epic rousing filmmaking, that paints in wide strokes across a broad canvas, yes, but still manages to engage, in a shamefully enjoyable, emotive way. Oh and it provided the valuable service of giving groups of drunken men something to bellow at each other on the way home from the pub (“You’ll never take… our FREEDOM”) in the days before “300” (“This. Is. SPARTA.”)
"Antz" vs. "A Bug's Life"
Shared theme: It's very hard to be an individual when you're a single tiny ant in a colony full of countless drones.
Released within: Two months of each other -- October and November, 1998
Different approaches: There are few dueling movies with a background as contentious as "A Bug's Life" and "Antz." To explain: Jeffrey Katzenberg was an executive at Disney when "Toy Story" was being developed and eventually the discussion turned to what the Pixar team's next movie would be (it was then called, simply, "Bugs," which is also very similar to "Antz"). Katzenberg then left the company to help with DreamWorks SKG, overseeing the animation division. DreamWorks Animation would combat both Disney (with its traditional hand-drawn animation facility, made up of poached ex-Disney employees) and Pixar (as they'd be utilizing work from Pixar competitor Pacific Data Images, or PDI). When Pixar bigwig (and "Bug's Life" director) John Lasseter found out about "Antz," he was furious and called for a meeting with Katzenberg. Katzenberg's terms were simple: move "A Bug's Life" away from the Thanksgiving release slot, where it would go up against DreamWorks' hugely expensive traditionally animated feature "Prince of Egypt," to a slot sometime in the new year, and Katzenberg wouldn't just remove "Antz" from the schedule (it was to open in October) but he would cancel the movie altogether. Lasseter told him to go fuck himself (in so many words), and Katzenberg rallied the troops at PDI and got the movie done ahead of the November debut of "A Bugs Life." That said, for a project that was very clearly stolen from a preexisting one, "Antz" doesn't look or feel all that much like "A Bug's Life." It was PDI's first feature-length movie and the animation is cruder than in "A Bug's Life" (Pixar's second film) with a harsher, more satirical script about conformity and political unrest and the first strands of DreamWorks' obsession with timely pop culture references (here it's things like "Starship Troopers"). Even the bugs look different -- in "Antz" the characters are a more lifelike brown, while in "A Bug's Life" they're blue, to avoid what Pixar called "the ick factor."
Which Was More Successful? "Antz" got to the box office first and made a little over $90 million, which is impressive but no match for the domestic haul of more than $162 million for "A Bug's Life." Even if they come second, Pixar beats them all.
Which Was Better? There are some really wonderful things about "Antz" -- it's got a smart script and Woody Allen is wonderful as the neurotic main ant, named Z. But the general lousiness of the animation and the somewhat dour aspects of the screenplay ultimately undermine what should have been a more jovial, buoyant experience. "A Bug's Life," on the other hand, is just that: it's a sunny confection that effortlessly combines Aesop's Fables and Akira Kurosawa into one grand design. And while "A Bug's Life" is often regarded as one of the "lesser" Pixar movies, is still charming and hilarious and gorgeous to look at, with the animators pushing the computers to convey nature in a looser, more organic way (compare this to the blocky nature of the PDI animation). It might not be as heartfelt (or as grandly experimental) as some of the other Pixar movies, but it is a solid, warm-hearted follow-up to "Toy Story," which isn't exactly an easy thing to do, with or without corporate subterfuge.