As the 1998 copycat movie battle of Deep Impact and Armageddon celebrates its 25th birthday, it's worth remembering that this sort of thing happens more often than you might expect.
We are so used to being told that the Hollywood studio machine is a meticulous and micromanaged industry. So, when things go wrong, it feels as though somebody at very the top might have dropped the ball with some catastrophic consequences.
Despite months of crowd-testing, rewrites and rehearsals, sometimes two or more studios find themselves in the impossible position of having unwittingly greenlit and even completed rival films with the exact same subject.
Here are just a few examples of times where this has happen.
Infamous (2006) vs Capote (2005)
Rumour has it that, while filming the life of Truman Capote for Infamous, its director Douglas McGrath and his star-studded cast (including British actor Toby Jones as Capote, and Daniel Craig as murder Perry Smith) were dimly aware of another Capote biopic in the works.
Yet it would be Bennett Miller’s less starry, more constrained Capote — released a few months before Infamous and featuring a career-defining turn by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman — which would be more successful.
Hoffman went on to take home the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role as well as the Bafta in a similar category. Capote was not just a critical hit; it recouped its $7m budget seven times over at the box office, while Infamous failed to make a profit.
No Strings Attached vs Friends with Benefits (both 2011)
Over twenty years after Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally (1989), our society was still supposedly wondering, in 2011, if two best friends of opposite sexes could still be friends, even after doing the deed. Which must be why we were graced — for our sins — with two seemingly identical films released within months of each other.
Famously, the working title of the quirky romcom No Strings Attached – starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher – was ‘Friends with Benefits’ but director Ivan Reitman was soon forced to change that, because of Will Gluck’s Friends with Benefits, with the always likeable (and future 'Mrs' Kutcher) Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake.
Both films made nearly $150m, but Gluck’s film was received more favourably by critics.
Winner: Friends with Benefits
Armageddon vs Deep Impact (both 1998)
In the face-off between these two disaster movies with similar themes, it’s no secret that Michael Bay’s Armageddon has had the most enduring popularity. Both films ask the same question: what would happen if we suddenly discovered that a giant asteroid is hurtling towards Earth?
Armageddon’s rival, Deep Impact – directed by Mimi Leder and starring Elijah Wood – scores less favourably on Rotten Tomatoes, but feels more sedate.
While both films were profitable, Bay’s is undeniably the more entertaining of the two.
Antz vs A Bug's Life (both 1998)
Or a head-to-head battle between, respectively, DreamWorks and Pixar. The plots of both Eric Darnell’s Antz and John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton’s A Bug’s Life centred around a colony of ants that must fight to protect itself from invaders.
Yet even though their releases took place within a month of each other, both productions somehow managed to find their own audiences and were equally feted by critics.
Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio (2022) vs Disney’s live action Pinocchio (2022) vs Pinocchio: A True Story (2021)
Although impressive that Pinocchio — a story written in 1883 — is still able to garner such interest in the 21st century, nobody could have predicted that Carlo Collodi’s classic novel would be adapted for the screen by three different productions within 12 months.
If Robert Zemeckis’ live action adaptation starring Tom Hanks proved to be the most accessible thanks to its family-friendly Disney+ release, it is del Toro’s incredibly intricate interpretation for Netflix, using stop motion animation, that has been the most critically acclaimed.
The award-winning director spent 11 painstaking years perfecting his craft and has given us the story’s greatest adaptation yet, winning the Best Animation Oscar in 2023.
Meanwhile, despite the help of the voices of Hollywood actors like Jon Heder and Pauly Shore, the Russian-produced adaptation Pinocchio: A True Story went straight to DVD and has so far sadly failed to amount to much, either theatrically or critically.
Winner: Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio
Olympus Has Fallen vs White House Down (both 2013)
Roland Emmerich never does things by halves. The king of the preposterously, overinflated action-filled drama spent over $150m on White House Down, relying on an increasingly cliché-laden style.
But it was outdone and outclassed by Antoine Fuqua’s Olympus Has Fallen, starring Gerard Butler, not least because Fuqua’s film – also about an attack on the White House by foreign forces – was just more fun.
In the end Olympus Has Fallen more than tripled its budget, while White House Down barely made its money back.
Winner: Olympus Has Fallen
Zodiac vs Curse of the Zodiac (both 2007)
Ask any self-respecting cinephile their favourite movie about a serial killer, and David Fincher’s Zodiac will come on top each time. It took time for the film to take its rightful place in the cinematic canon as an all-time great, but it broke even at the box office, and has amassed praise from critics and audiences alike.
And it fared far better than Ulli Lommel's Curse of the Zodiac which went straight to DVD, never to be heard from again.