When 20th Century Fox unveils its movie “Volcano” later this year, audiences will get an eerie feeling.
It won’t necessarily come from the spectacle of seeing Los Angeles engulfed in molten lava, but from the distinct impression of deja vu.
After all, Universal Pictures already debuted a mega-budget volcano disaster movie last weekend “Dante’s Peak.”
That same feeling of deja vu was experienced by audiences who went to see “Wyatt Earp” in 1994, after the Western hero’s story had already hit screens six months earlier in “Tombstone.” Not to mention the half-dozen or so other movies from the early 1990s about little boys trapped in the bodies of grown men, or vice versa. (“Big,” “Vice Versa,” “Like Father Like Son,” etc.)
Cloning is nothing new in Hollywood. But like a mad scientist who loses control of his creation, major studios seem to be releasing an increasing number of dual projects.
These are not merely the kind of copycat films that have been made for generations in which one studio follows up another studio’s successful idea by making another movie based on same concept. Rather, clones are movies about the same subject that are in development at more than one studio simultaneously.
Why does this happen? The phenomenon stems mainly from the way scripts and story treatments circulate between studios. And ultimately, it is a function of hubris.
“It’s pure arrogance,” said entertainment attorney Michael Adler with West Hollywood-based Lichter, Grossman, Nichols & Adler. “Nobody wants to blink when they find out somebody else is working on the same project, because not to make your movie is to admit defeat. So they race each other to see who can get it out first.”
“Dante’s Peak” and “Volcano” are two of this season’s highest-profile clones, but there are a host of others.
The name Steve Prefontaine was until recently little more than the answer to a sports trivia question, but the runner’s life story is suddenly a hot property. Walt Disney Co.’s now-defunct Hollywood Pictures label released the biographic film “Prefontaine” in mid-January, and Warner Bros. plans to release a movie about the same man, called “Pre,” this fall.
Singer Janis Joplin, another figure from an earlier generation who, like Prefontaine, has been dead for more than 20 years, is being revived via two separate biographic projects being developed simultaneously by Paramount Pictures and TriStar Pictures.
Meanwhile, a movie called “Armageddon” from Disney’s Touchstone Pictures is slated to go before the cameras in May, just a few weeks after DreamWorks SKG and Paramount start filming their joint project “Deep Impact.” Both movies are about giant asteriods striking the Earth.
Movie cloning is a touchy subject in Hollywood. The principals involved with many of the above-mentioned projects did not return calls.
Insiders at talent agencies and studios said people in the story development departments at studios and production companies are usually well aware of the projects being pursued by their competitors. They communicate with each other regularly, even discussing their projects openly in special Hollywood chat rooms on the Internet.
Often, studio officials pursue the same stories not because they are unaware of what their rivals are doing, but because they are convinced they can do the same project better.
“Story treatments,” which are synopses of ideas for screenplays that have not yet been written, are usually circulated all over town. Ideas have a way of appearing in more than one place; people talk, and successful screenwriters are well aware of what concepts are hot.
Further, competing producers are all looking for very much the same basic concepts.
“You have a lot of development executives who are approximately the same age, with approximately the same frame of reference. So it’s no wonder they’re attracted to the same projects,” said Linda Palmer, a former production vice president at TriStar Pictures who now works at Warren Cowan & Associates.
The aging of the Baby Boomers has led to a revival of stories from the 1970s with movies being made based on period TV shows and the decade’s influential figures.
The only aspect of today’s snowballing cloning phenomenon that surprises observers is that studios so seldom cooperate when they discover someone else is working on a virtually identical project. After all, cooperation has reaped big dividends in the past.
In 1972, two studios, unbeknownst to each other, bought the rights to two then-unpublished novels that were about the same subject: A giant office tower catches fire, leaving occupants trapped inside.
When officials at Warner Bros. and Fox discovered the coincidence, they agreed to hire a writer to develop a screenplay merging the stories of the novels “The Tower” and “The Glass Inferno.” The result was the 1974 movie “The Towering Inferno,” a towering hit that Warner Bros. and Fox co-financed.