When people bemoan Hollywood’s lack of imagination they often look at how films copy each other. Two different studios put out the exact same movie only months or even sometimes weeks a part.
Recently The First, a new drama about an astronaut trying to become the first man on Mars, launched on television. It arrives as First Man plays in cinemas, Ryan Gosling as the all-American hero Neil Armstrong. Was this coincidence? Some renewed interest in space exploration?
Or is it just lazy film making or is there something else that does on that the general population isn’t aware of?
Don’t forget there was Deep Impact and Armageddon, both disaster movies about asteroids set to hit Earth, and Liberty Stands Still and Phone Booth, thrillers where someone answers a ringing phone and is then pinned to the spot by a sniper on the other end of the line.
Later in 2005 and 2006 there were Capote and Infamous respectively, both centering on Truman Capote the charismatic author who wrote Breakfast at Tiffany's.
Often, the clash is simply down to several screenwriters and producers reacting to the same event. For example the death of Steve Jobs. When the Apple co-founder took medical leave because of cancer in 2011, screenwriter Matt Whiteley began working on the film that would eventually become the biopic staring Ashton Kutcher as Jobs. At the same time, Steve Jobs himself asked author Walter Isaacson to write a biography on him, for which Sony Pictures acquired the rights in October of that year, the same month Jobs passed away. The delay while the film is actually made might make movies feel less reactive by the time they open in cinemas, but often they were conceived on the very same day.
In some cases, copycat films are the result of one project’s knowledge of the other. When Charlton Heston was chosen over Kirk Douglas to star in Ben-Hur, Douglas put his own Roman epic into production, optioning the novel Spartacus. It’s of course not only the actors who can pinch ideas. Hollywood, after all, is not a big industry and staff are constantly moving between studios, scripts picked up by one studio will usually have already been shopped at others before it, and word of a new film usually reaches the Hollywood trade magazines very early on in their development. That is all to say that Hollywood is very incestuous and the studios feel the need to compete with strong ideas for box office results.
In 1998 we had Pixar release A Bug’s Life compete with Antz which was produced by Dreamworks. This was a result of an all-out war between the two studios. John Lasseter told Jeffrey Katzenberg – the two had collaborated on Toy Story together – that he was planning on creating a film about ants. Katzenberg, if reports are to be believed, stole the idea and created Antz. Although the story of Antz might have been created completely independently, it got pushed through to compete directly with Antz.
As we can see, there are many reason that copycat films are created. Hollywood is an industry like any other and they need to produce films in order to sell tickets and make money. This means that originality is often an after thought.
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