Pic duels often destined for double trouble

FOX’S $100 MILLION-PLUS special-effects disaster pic “Volcano” had all the earmarks of a box office bonanza. The tracked awareness was enormous and the desire to see L.A. erupt was palpable. However, the saga of lava has oozed, rather than flowed, to $27 million in 10 days, and industry pundits doubt it can gross $50 million domestically.

“Volcano” appears to be the loser in a race with Universal’s similarly themed February release “Dante’s Peak,” which has grossed $150 million worldwide. While it’s rare for two high-profile lookalikes to butt heads in the marketplace, it’s not unprecedented. The past decade alone has spawned multiple Wyatt Earps, Christopher Columbuses, Robin Hoods, dueling “Three Musketeers” and at least a pair of “Hunchbacks.”

In addition to the current high-concept volcanic tussle, we can look forward to vying yarns about midair hijackings this summer. Warner Bros. will follow Disney with its upcoming bio of runner Steve Prefontaine. There are also rival Janis Joplin movies currently in development at TriStar and Paramount with Lili Taylor and Melissa Etheridge, respectively, cast as the late rock ‘n’ roller.

“There’s only one rule to remember when you have competing films in production: Get finished and on screens first,” observes MGM distribution president Larry Gleason. “The second film is often artistically superior, but there are very few instances when it out-grosses the first film that goes out in the marketplace.”

“These are races,” says screenwriter John Fasano, who toiled on a “Three Musketeers,” a “Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Tombstone.” “There’s virtually nothing more frightening for a writer than hearing someone say, ‘Now we’re in a race.’ Your work becomes about speed, and issues of quality get subsumed. It’s generally a soul-withering experience.”

OFTEN THE STAKES RISE TO SUCH a frightening level that one project throws in the towel. In 1992, a New Yorker article titled “Crisis in the Hot Zone” set off a bidding war for rights to film the tale of a deadly virus threatening Washington, D.C. Twentieth Century Fox won the battle, securing the material for director Ridley Scott. Producer Arnold Kopelson, a jilted suitor based at Warner Bros., decided to commission his own script with a different, but similar dynamic. It became “Outbreak.” The Fox project was plagued by demands from talent for rewrites that were rejected and caused key players to depart and the studio to abandon the project after considerable development costs had been rung up. Some of Hollywood’s worst expressions of ego, spite and desperation have been involved in the making and unmaking of these competing films.

One of the most vicious battles ensued between “Tombstone” and “Wyatt Earp,” circa 1993. The former, a script by Kevin Jarre, was a widely admired retelling of the lawman’s OK Corral days and was to be the writer’s directing debut. It was proceeding apace at Universal when another Earp project, scheduled as a TV miniseries, was adopted by Kevin Costner. Costner’s involvement appeared to have a palpable impact on “Tombstone.” Universal pulled out a matter of weeks before the start of filming and the filmmakers and actors went on a mad scramble to set the film up at another studio. One by one they were turned down, but at the 11th hour Cinergi, with a Disney output deal, OK’d a slightly pared-down budget of slightly more than $20 million and the film went forward.

The picture’s travails were far from over. The other film quickly corraled Western clothing and gear from the leading wardrobe and prop houses. Then Jarre and Cinergi literally had a parting of the ways and George Cosmotas took over the reins. The film had a taint and opened without fanfare. But critics and audiences responded enthusiastically and the pic went on to gross more than $50 million domestically. The far more anticipated “Wyatt opened six months later and sputtered to a dismal $25 million.

HISTORICALLY, THE FIRST PICTURE is commercially advantaged. The critically drubbed “Christopher Columbus” out-grossed “1492.” One rare exception was “Big,” the fifth yarn released between 1987 and 1988 using the premise of a child magically becoming or switching places with an adult.

“It was a scary period,” recalls producer Polly Platt, who was at Gracie Films at the time. “We liked the script and bought it unaware there were similar projects. One day someone told us about ‘Vice Versa’ at Columbia and the next day it was ‘Like Father, Like Son’ at Universal. We were dumbfounded but decided to proceed, as none of the films was shooting anyway.” Penny Marshall, who’d had an unpleasant experience on her first feature, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” convinced them she had the right take on the material and envisioned Robert De Niro for the lead. However, timing put the kibosh on that and the producers settled for up-and-comer Tom Hanks. “Big” opened in June 1988, about 10 months after “Like Father, Like Son” and lived up to its name with a near $200 million worldwide theatrical gross. It received Oscar nominations for its script and for Hanks, and catapulted Marshall into the ranks of highly sought-after directors.

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