The Bizarre Hollywood Phenomenon of “Twin Films”

Yachna N. asks: Why do movie studios release near identical movies at the same time?

filming“Twin films” is the term used to describe a peculiar Hollywood phenomenon that just about every year sees different major studios releasing movies with almost identical plots and themes to their competitors current offerings. Popular examples of twin films include Deep Impact and Armageddon, two films released within weeks of one another that centred around saving the world from a giant meteor. Other popular examples include A Bug’s Life and Antz – animated films about ants rebelling against their hive. Then there’s Dante’s Inferno and Volcano – both of which are disaster films about volcanic eruptions. (As an idea of how common this is in Hollywood, all of these films were released between 1997 and 1998.)

Or how about Chasing Liberty and First Daughter, two romantic comedies released in 2004 centered around the idea of the romantic escapades of the President’s rebellious teenage daughter. Sticking with the White House, we have the March 22, 2013 release of Olympus Has Fallen followed by the shockingly similar June 8, 2013 film White House Down, which, to be fair, are both mostly just “Die Hard in the White House”.

While it’s tempting to think this is something of a modern phenomenon deriving from the popular meme that Hollywood has run out of ideas, in truth, twin films are as old as the film industry itself. So how do these come about?

It turns out there are a variety of things that may result in a twin film, with everything from corporate espionage to pure coincidence coming into play.  For example, one of the most famous films of all time, Gone With the Wind, is also one of the most noteworthy twin films in history. In this case, famed actress Bette Davis failed to secure the role of Scarlett O’Hara in MGM’s Gone With the Wind. Looking to make their own Civil War film, Warner Brothers snapped up the rights to a Broadway play called Jezebel, which, like Gone With the Wind, was all about a fiercely independent southern woman during the Civil War. They then cast Davis in the title role and slapped together a film as quickly as possible in order to get it out before Gone With the Wind.

They were successful in this endeavor, with the film being a hit and Davis even winning an Oscar for her role in the movie. However, while Jezebel was well received, it was soon eclipsed by its twin film, Gone With the Wind, which would set a record for the most Academy Awards and nominations, sell around 25 million tickets from 1939-1940, and then be re-issued in 1941 and 1942 bringing the total up to just shy of an astounding 60 million tickets sold. This made it the highest grossing film ever made up to that point. In fact, it is still generally considered such after adjusting for inflation.

(To be fair to recent films like Avatar that have come close to the mark when adjusting for inflation, Gone With the Wind has been re-released many times over the years continuing to pad the numbers; without those re-releases, it would no longer hold the top spot; so it’s possible many decades from now a few of those other films might surpass it if they ultimately show some semblance of staying power. Although, I don’t think anyone’s holding their breath about the current #6, Furious 7, benefiting from a flurry of re-releases over the coming decades…)

In any event, other twin films alleged to have surfaced as a result of intentional corporate shenanigans include the aforementioned Deep Impact and Armageddon, largely because the latter film mysteriously went into production just weeks after Deep Impact was announced. A lawsuit was threatened as a result, but ultimately nothing ever came of it.

Likewise, it’s long been rumored that the idea for the Dreamworks film Antz was stolen from Disney by Jeffrey Katzenberg, the then CEO of the studio. Prior to working for Dreamworks, Katzenberg had worked for Disney and it’s alleged that when he jumped ship, he took an idea Disney had been working on about an animated film about a non-conformist ant and made it his own. Again, nothing ever came of the allegations and it’s still not clear which studio had the idea first.

Another reason for twins films coming to be is just timing of some event or the like. For example, this is the proposed explanation for why Hollywood decided to release two competing movies chronicling the life of Christopher Columbus in 1992. These movies, 1492: Conquest of Paradise and Christopher Columbus: The Discovery were both advertised as celebrating the 500th anniversary of the “discovery” of America. (See: The Truth About Christopher Columbus)

Twin films can also arise as a result of studios wanting to cover or delve into the same currently en vogue topic at the time, but not necessarily having been inspired by the knowledge that another studio was working on something similar. (With the number of people working on movies, studios pretty much always know what other studios are developing at any given moment, whether they widely announce a project or not.) Notable examples of this are the films The Truman Show and EDtv released in 1998 and 1999 respectively. Both of these were made, as the British Film Institute puts it, as a direct result of an attempt to: “tap into the fascination with the then-nascent reality television”.

Then you have studios simply noticing that a particular genre of film is popular at a given time and attempting to cash in on the trend. A great example is the year 1979 during which five different Dracula movies were released, the most notable being Nosferatu the Vampyre and Dracula- both of which weren’t just simple retellings of Bram Stoker’s original Gothic masterpiece, but adaptations of previous adaptations of his work.

So the next time someone complains about the supposedly “new” notion of Hollywood running out of ideas based on recent offerings seeming to be a slurry of remakes, just remind them that at the end of the 1970s, studios released five Dracula movies in quick succession, two of which were remakes of existing Dracula movies.

Remakes upon remakes has always been the order of the day going all the way back to silent films, which were often just remakes of stage-shows, books, other silent films, etc. A noteworthy early example of this is the 1939 Wizard of Oz staring Judy Garland. While you might be aware that it is based on a book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900, you probably aren’t aware that, beyond previous Broadway musical adaptations, the 1939 Wizard of Oz was something of a remake of the 1925 film The Wizard of Oz. Yes, it took Hollywood just 14 years to decide that modifying the story a bit and adding a dash of new technology made making The Wizard of Oz again a great idea. Originality has never been the name of the game in Hollywood- adapting existing works of various sorts has always been more of the rule than the exception. Modern cinema is no different in this respect.

Now, as you’d expect for an industry where ego and self-aggrandizement are celebrated, even when studios learn that a rival is planning to release a movie with an almost identical premise, they seldom back down to divert resources into more unique offerings, which is a key reason so many of these films are released so close to one another.

A notable exception is the 1974 film The Towering Inferno. The movie originally began life as two different projects optioned by Warner Bros and Twentieth Century Fox respectively following the success of disaster movie, The Poseidon Adventure. After being outbid by Warner Bros for the rights to a novel about a burning skyscraper called The Tower, Fox attempted to steal their thunder by purchasing the rights to a book with an almost identical premise called The Glass Inferno.

Both studios were set to make their own version of the film, each starring big named actors, with Warner Bros pegging Paul Newman for the lead and Fox doing the same with Steve McQueen. However, before production began, producer Irwin Allen convinced executives from both studios that there was no scenario in which either studio would win if they decided to compete with one another at the box office. Instead, he proposed that they combine resources to make a single, super film about a giant flaming building. Not only would ceasing to compete on this one help revenue while reducing overall cost for each studio, but they could even have both Newman and McQueen starring in it.

The two studios agreed and terms were quickly drawn up, with the historic union being formally announced in a press release in October of 1973 that read:

It’s as though General Motors and Chrysler combined their respective brainpower and manpower and went Dutch treat on the bill to produce a new model automobile.

As for the film’s title, an agreement was reached to combine the titles of the two novels that served as inspiration for the film- so, The Tower and The Glass Inferno became The Towering Inferno

In the end, the film was a massive hit, grossing approximately ten times its production budget and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, of which it won three.

Of course, although twin films are still just as popular today as they were decades ago- seeing as in 2017 alone we’ve had competing biopics about both Winston Churchill (Churchill and Darkest Hour) and Tommy Wiseau (The Disaster Artist and Best F(r)iends)- the current “in thing” in Hollywood appears to be aping the idea of shared cinematic universes, in a not so-subtle attempt to emulate the success of Marvel.

(But seemingly always choosing, unlike Marvel, to make cinematic universes darker and darker as their stamp on their blow-em-up world ending sagas, rather than Marvel’s choice of keeping things generally light-hearted, even in their films’ darkest moments- essentially never taking themselves and their brand of world-ending plots too seriously.)

Examples of films launched recently that were intended to be a jumping off point for a shared cinematic universe include King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) and The Mummy (2017), both of which failed to meet box office expectations and resulted in plans for additional films to be shelved. (A temporary setback; they’ll surely try again and again.)

Meanwhile, a few years ago Hollywood was all about adapting books aimed at young adults into potential epic series, examples including Divergent, The Maze Runner, Eragon, The Vampire’s Assistant, Vampire Academy, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and the Percy Jackson films- all of which were an attempt to emulate the success of similar offerings like Harry Potter, The Twilight Saga, and The Hunger Games films.

Looking to the future, it appears that twin films are very much going to remain a part of the cinematic landscape with, for instance, there being at least half a dozen Robin Hood films in development right now, including one that’s supposed to be the launch pad for a new shared cinematic universe…

Just for fun, we can only hope that studio execs take a leaf out of Warner Bros and Fox’s 1974 playbook and decide to combine their resources to make a single, giant Robin Hood movie starring every major actor in Hollywood- a feat Marvel seems to be presently striving for anyway in their own little universe, which… *lightbulb* Robin Hood as the backstory for Marvel’s Hawkeye in a first step to bring all cinematic universes from every film ever made into one single megaverse. Just saying, I’d pay to see Inigo Montoya as a member of the Avengers.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Die Hard was actually technically an adaptation of a book Nothing Lasts Forever, which in turn was a sequel to a book called The Detective, which was made into a 1968 film of the same name starring Frank Sinatra.  For this reason, Sinatra contractually had to be offered the role of John McClane in Die Hard, even though he was 73 years old when the film was made. Naturally given his age, Sinatra turned down the role. Although, Bruce Willis is now in his 60s and showing no signs of slowing down on the action star front, so maybe we’ll yet get a Die Hard film with a 73 year old star.
  • Steve McQueen and Paul Newman were reportedly not happy about the merged films, and particularly were concerned with who would be given top billing for The Towering Inferno, which resulted in the poster for the film looking like a hot mess. You see, to satisfy the ego of both men their names were written diagonally across the top of the poster, with McQueen’s name being further to the left but Newman’s being slightly higher. This was done so that each man technically had top billing depending on whether you read the names left to right, or top to bottom. To prevent further arguments, McQueen and Newman received exactly the same pay for appearing in the movie. According to a persistent and possibly apocryphal rumor, McQueen went as far to order rewrites for his character so that he and Newman would have the same amount of screen time and number of spoken lines.
  • Yet another blatant example of twin films was two competing biopics of the starlet Jean Harlow released in 1965 made by Paramount Pictures and Magna. Both films were in cinemas at the same time, with Magna’s take on the source material being released five weeks earlier. The kicker? Both films were called Harlow.
  • One of the more amusing sets of twin films is The Legend of the Titanic and Titanic: The Legend Goes On, which were two animated films released within a few months of each other in 1999 and 2000 respectively, retelling the story of the sinking of the Titanic, both by Italian studios, and both of which inexplicably starred talking anthropomorphic mice…
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  • I always thought it was because someone pitched the same idea to multiple studios who turned them down and then stole the concept.

  • That probably happens too.

  • Well, the idea of stealing a concept is built on the belief that authors think that their work is absolutely unique so anything even slightly similar must’ve been stolen. But actually, I ran playwrights’ workshops for several years and every year there would be two or three submissions that were so close to identical as to make the choosing between them entirely because of the quality of writing rather than content or some other attractive feature. Sometimes the stimulation for the identical topics was obvious from stuff in the news, otherwise it was more mysterious and we just went with noting the similarity.

    • ‘Dante’s PEAK’ was released with ‘Volcano ‘ and, on a related note, there were two 1950s cheesy b-movies that were designed to get people to think about the rise of communism:IT CONQUERED THE WORLD and ZONTAR, THE THING FROM VENUS

    • So just fyi, the second volcano movie is Dante’s Peak, not Dante’s Inferno.

  • Another case is where two films are well along in development and one is killed because the other exists. ‘Outbreak’ with Dustin Hoffman was going to be up against a project about a real incident in Reston, Virginia, that had Jodie Foster and Robert Redford lined up to star. It seems the makers of the Foster-Redford movie decided they’d be unable to compete with the more fanciful Hoffman movie and gave up.