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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Now it’s ‘Killer’s and ‘Knight and Day’: Why do movies seem to come in thematic pairs so often?

Reader Feh in comments following my review of Killers asks:

MaryAnn, do you have any insight into the ripoff pattern? Why do Hollywood movies tend to come out in pairs? Killers/Knight & Day, Abyss/Leviathan, Deep Impact/Armageddon.

Feh then links to a story titled “11 Identical Movies Released at the Same Time” — which dates back to last year, when we had Observe and Report and Paul Blart: Mall Cop back to back. The piece also mentions other recent apparent ripoffs including the pair of The Prestige and The Illusionist. And now we have Killers and, opening tomorrow, Knight and Day. (Reviews are supposed to be embargoed till tomorrow, but even though lots of critics have already posted theirs, I’ll honor the embargo and post mine at 12:01am tonight.)
I say “apparent ripoffs” because I actually don’t think there’s anything nefarious going on. I doubt the studios are spying on one another and stealing ideas from their competition — it’s probably not even necessary, when news about who has acquired what script from whom and which talent is attached to which project fills Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. I do think, however, that all the apparent copycatting is a symptom of how insular Hollywood is. The powerful folks at the studios all move in the same small circles, know the same people, go to the same parties, read the same newspapers and magazines. All it takes is one little mention of, say, Harry Houdini in some forum that all these people have access to, and it’s easy to see how that could spark off multiple movies about magicians. It doesn’t require that anyone steal anything from anybody, for there could have been scripts for magician stories that were written half a planet and half a decade apart languishing in development hell until suddenly a lightbulb goes off in a studio exec’s head. It’s not a coincidence that another exec gets the same lightbulb at the same time, but it’s nothing disreputable either.

Of course, that’s just my theory. Maybe Hollywood really is playing an ongoing game of spy-versus-spy.

What do you think: Why do movies seem to come in thematic pairs so often?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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  • Sarah

    Well, movies spend a long time developing and being made, and after they’re made they spend a long time on shelves. Maybe it’s not so much tandem creation as tandem release; one studio says it’s putting out its married spy caper, and the other is like, oh shit, we need to get ours out this summer or we’ll look like idiots, take it off the shelf, boys.

    None of that, however, explains Repo Men and Repo. Two disaster movies I understand. Two movies about futuristic organ harvesting?

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    Yeah, Antz/A Bug’s life wasn’t the only similarity between PDI/Dreamworks and Pixar/Disney.

    1998: Insects! Antz vs. A Bug’s Life.
    2000: South America! Road to El Dorado and Emperor’s New Groove.
    2001: Monsters! Monsters Inc vs. Shrek.
    2003/2004: Fish! Shark Tale vs. Finding Nemo.

    Eventually the zoo escape of Madagascar and the Wild as well.

    It was weird. None of the films are actually all that similar, aside from being animated, and having the same general setting. Dreamworks also relies more heavily on celebrity caricature with their voice actors than Pixar.

    Still, it was very weird.

  • Bill

    I am just thinking out of my ass here, but if I had to guess, I would say that the blockbuster industry is pretty data driven. they focus-group-test-screen-whatever the hell out of movies (don’t they?). anyway, if the numbers folks are worth a damn, i can see how two studios, through analysis of reactions to batches of dissimilar films in 2008, might arrive at the same conclusions, i.e., we gotta have a magic movie or an armageddon movie ready for 2010.

  • JoshDM

    I’ve noticed this for years, but I can’t recall which one was the opposite pair for Twister. I remember there being one, but I’ve forgotten it.

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