The life of a society matron famous only for her terrible singing voice is an unlikely subject for a movie. The fact of two new features on such a theme being released within the space of a month, Marguerite and Florence Foster Jenkins, might appear unlikelier still, were it not for the fact that “twin movies” (two films on the same topic, made and released around the same time) are now an established tradition. Earlier pairings such as Antz vs A Bug’s Life and Dante’s Peak vs Volcano readily spring to mind.
But to what extent do these films cannibalise each other’s audience – or do two similar films help to stir greater interest than had they been singular products competing in a crowded marketplace?
Marguerite vs Florence Foster Jenkins
Marguerite – starring Catherine Frot, who won a best actor Cesar for the role in her native France – was released in Australia on April 21. It tells a version of the story of the US society matron and operatic wanna-be Florence Foster Jenkins, whose name is changed here to Marguerite Dumont and heyday changed from 1940s Manhattan to 1920s France.
Released on May 5 meanwhile is a film on the same subject from the veteran British director Stephen Frears called, imaginatively enough, Florence Foster Jenkins. It stars Meryl Streep, with Hugh Grant playing Jenkins’s common law husband and manager.
The two features have some obvious differences in addition to their different historical settings and geographical locations. Frears’s take on the story is brightly filmed and obviously comedic, while French filmmaker Xavier Giannoli’s view of the French mega-rich is not only more serious but filmed in shadowy tones, the outdoor sunshine perpetually failing to force its way into a secret world of wealth hidden behind permanently drawn velvet drapes.
Yet the films also share some remarkable similarities, not only in the way they luxuriate in handsomely detailed production design, but also in their key plot points, albeit in sometimes a different order, and their similar attitude towards their subjects. While both Jenkins and Dumont are seen as figures of fun, each film regards its heroine with no small degree of empathy and affection.
In these pairings there’s usually one film that comes off best at the box office, and in this case it’s pretty easy to predict the likely economic victor to be the Frears movie, if only because it boasts two popular Hollywood stars performing in English. But will Marguerite’s being released slightly ahead of the Streep film give the former some box office momentum by seeming to be the original, with the US film the apparent imitator?
The Truman Show vs. EdTV
Usually there’s one title in a twin film release that zooms ahead of its sibling. When asked to nominate a movie that commented on the late 1990s fascination with then-new phenomenon of reality TV, most people will cite Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, largely because it’s a genuinely inventive and memorable film that was seen by more people.
Much less likely to be recalled is Ron Howard’s EdTV, starring Matthew McConaughey. But then it was based around a guy who knew he was starring in a TV show. Andrew Niccol’s screenplay for Truman had a far more imaginative scenario: at the start of the story, Jim Carrey’s titular hero thought he was living his own life and had no idea his “ordinary” world had been set up by a television network and was being filmed for a TV show.
Antz vs. A Bug's Life
The media loved the 1998 face-off over insects because it could be spun to represented real-life rivalry between Disney (whose Pixar produced the latter title) and new kid on the block Dreamworks, whose animation division was headed by Jeffrey Katzenberg, Disney’s axe-grinding former animation boss.
Katzenberg appeared incredibly eager to take on and defeat his old boss Michael Eisner and Pixar’s then-chief Steve Jobs. Accusations were leveled against Katzenberg of the “you stole my project!” ilk, followed by negotiations between the rival corporations.
In the event, Antz was released first, but the apparent timing advantage proved of little worth, with the Pixar film going on to earn roughly twice as much at the box office as its Dreamworks rival.
Deep Impact vs Armageddon
The same year, 1998, also witnessed a champion title bout between asteroid-threatens-earth movies Deep Impact, a joint venture between DreamWorks and Paramount directed by Mimi Leder, and Touchstone’s Armageddon, helmed by the populist Michael Bay.
Deep Impact, with its high-tone cast (Vanessa Redgrave! Morgan Freeman!), opened first, grossing a not-to-be-sniffed-at $349 million worldwide, while the Bay movie, despite (or perhaps because of) being critically derided as crass, went on to scoop up a mind-boggling $553 worldwide. This is a relatively rare example of twin films where each proved to be an unambiguous financial success.
Capote vs Infamous
Indie movie producers got into the game when they managed to come up with no less than two biopics of American man of letters Truman Capote revolving around his writing of the true-crime classic In Cold Blood. Each was based on a different biography but covered pretty much the same ground.
The one that most people got to hear about was Capote, mainly because its star, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, gained his first and only Oscar from playing the writer. Some argued whether his high-pitched lisping was an authentic portrayal of an affected person, or an affected performance, period, though in the end perhaps they amounted to the same thing.
Infamous, starring relatively little-known UK actor Toby Jones, had its release delayed to avoid clashing with the Hoffman film, and with no major critical push and an unknown in the lead, quickly fell by the wayside.
Dante’s Peak vs Volcano
This pair from 1997 channeled the old-fashioned disaster epics of 1970s hits Earthquake and Towering Inferno. Twentieth Century Fox’s Volcano starred Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche featured a volcanic eruption centered on a Los Angeles tar pit. Of course, to the Hollywood studios, the centre of the world is LA, so that kind of made sense.
Meanwhile Universal’s Dante’s Peak featured a volcano with an actual peak and starred Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton. It too featured panic outbreaks as lava spewed forth copiously. Worldwide it grossed $US 178 million (against a production budget of $US116 million). By contrast Volcano took a lower $123 million but also cost less to make at $US 90 million. By this reckoning, both appear to have been financial successes.
Mirror Mirror vs Snow White and The Huntsman
The fairy tale of Snow White was known to millions through the Brothers Grimm storybooks and the beloved 1937 Walt Disney animation, a genuine cinema masterpiece. If we ignore a little-known 1962 East German attempt, there were no more big movie productions for 75 years. Then came 2012, and (clicks fingers)... there were two: Mirror Mirror (starring Julia Roberts and Lily Collins) and Snow White and the Huntsman (Charlize Theron and Kristen Stewart).
Here the double-release coincidence/ strategy appears not to have harmed the market for the films at all. Huntsman earned a huge $US 396.6 million worldwide (against an also incredible production cost of $US 170 million). Mirror came in behind with a still respectable $US 183,018,522 world box office, but also a lower production cost, $US 85 million.
In addition there’s been a sequel, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, while another splashily filmed adaptation of a classic fairy tale, Maleficent (from Sleeping Beauty), has gone onto to hoover up an extraordinary $US 758 million across the globe.
Conclusion: The Snow White twins, far from cannibalising each other, started an entire new Hollywood trend.
Striptease vs Showgirls
One concerned a Las Vegas show girl (newcomer Elizabeth Berkeley), the other a stripper (Demi Moore), but let’s not waste hours debating the fine differences.
These birds of a feather are often described as box office bombs, though 1996’s Striptease earned a respectable $113 million worldwide in cinemas, and while 1995’s Showgirls grossed less at the box office than its $US45 production budget, it went onto become one of MGM’s Top 20 home entertainment best-sellers and built a reputation as an acidic satire among at least some cineastes, including filmmakers Jim Jarmusch and the late Jacques Rivette.
The critical consensus is that Striptease buried much of the wit of Carl Hiaasen’s source novel. Play the YouTube clips and you see Moore’s self-conscious gyrations (she was paid a then record $US 12.5 million) looking closer to pain-inducing calisthenics than self-empowering foxiness.
By contrast, Showgirls director Paul Verhoven filmed Joe Eszterhas’s lurid script with tongue well in cheek, underlining its excessiveness and creating a deliciously entertaining cornucopia of camp.