Dueling pix duke it out for B.O. turf

Screen Gems stays course with 'Benefits'

When Screen Gems found out that a project similar to its “Friends With Benefits” was in development at Paramount, the Sony division could have chosen one of four common responses when similar projects are competing: rush, trump, stall or kill.

Instead, Screen Gems went with a fifth option: It stayed the course.

Paramount’s casual sex-themed romp “No Strings Attached” (at one point also titled “Friends With Benefits”) was first out of the gate in January — and grossed nearly $150 million worldwide.

If “Benefits” launches successfully, it’ll prove yet again that similar movies, when given the proper space and marketing, can profitably coexist. Yet more often than not, comparable projects create anxiety among studio execs.

In the world of competing similar films, conventional wisdom says you need to be first out of the box.

Universal bumped up its release of “Snow White and the Huntsman” to June 1, 2012, leapfrogging

a competing “Snow White” project at Relativity by over a month. Relativity countered, reassigning its Tarsem Singh-helmed pic from June 29 to March 16, 2012, putting it more than two months into the lead and effectively making the production schedule so tight that U wouldn’t be able to accelerate production any more to beat the Relativity’s pic release date (Daily Variety, May 25).

“It’s better to be first in the marketplace because you certainly don’t want marketing confusion out there,” said a bizzer familiar with such situations. When two movies are similar, “More than anything, you really want your message to be clean, clear, simple, and you want people to understand what your movie is … you want either to be first so your marketing materials are out there clean or have enough space between you and the other movie so that confusion doesn’t happen.”

“Benefits,” opening Friday, has seven months between it and “Strings.” And with its own pair of hot, young Hollywood stars in Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake, few fans of the raunchy romantic comedy genre should balk that both films look at no-commitment relationships.

However, the stakes are higher when competing projects take on not just similar themes but well-known characters like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Frankenstein.

At least half a dozen Frankenstein projects are in development, each with its own spin on Mary Shelley’s gothic tale, and many with pedigreed talent attached. Max Landis is writing a treatment for 20th Century Fox; Universal is developing a version with Guillermo del Toro and Scott Stuber; Lakeshore Entertainment is at work on “I, Frankenstein”; and then there’s Summit’s “This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein.”

It looks like “Wake the Dead” is getting up off the gurney first, with Haley Joel Osment set to star in the retelling that’s set in the present day (Daily Variety, June 27). Jay Russell will helm the horror pic based on the graphic novels by Steven Niles, with Osment playing Victor Frankenstein, a college student experimenting with reversing death. While none of the Frankenstein projects are dated, “Wake the Dead” is the furthest along — and the race is on.

But rushing can put pressure on the screenwriter, and A-list talent attachments can intimidate those behind other projects.

According to one exec, “It can make everybody more focused and things can gel more quickly, or it can unravel projects as well … If there are multiple projects about the same thing, you are certainly going to want to get your writer to deliver a script as soon as possible, so you can gauge where you are vis-a-vis the competition.”

With animation, there are additional pressures. Toons require a longer gestation period and, often, lots of coin before a pic is greenlit, increasing the pressure to keep details under wraps — until someone comes along and trumps the project, anyway.

“I can’t tell you how many bird projects were killed when it was announced that ‘Rio’ was going,” one bizzer told Variety.

Baz Luhrmann’s Alexander the Great project suffered a similar fate when Oliver Stone’s version of the sword-and-sandal pic made it to the bigscreen while Luhrmann’s never made it into production. To be fair, hundreds of problems can halt or stall projects, but Stone developing a similar pic couldn’t have helped Luhrmann’s cause.

Producers can also try to trump the competition by attaching major talent, which can intimidate those behind other projects enough to halt development — or stall, as is often the case, though that option can sentence a project to development hell.

“There’s a wait-and-see (mentality),” says one producer familiar with the competing project conundrum. “It slows your project down; suddenly no one wants to attach a director, no one wants to move forward.”

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