You’re not seeing double — not exactly, anyway. Every once in a while, Hollywood seems to fold in on itself and release two incredibly similar films in very close succession to one another, leaving moviegoers to double down on their loyalties to one studio over the other, or one lead actor over the other.
It can seem intentional, but also disadvantageous, for movie studios to split the public’s attention between two films. So, what gives?
It's not an illusion — it's twins!
In September 2006, audiences saw Edward Norton and Jessica Biel in period garb in the Yari Film Group’s "The Illusionist," which followed a 19th-century stage magician trying to rescue his love. But then, in a bit of hocus-pocus trickery, Touchstone Pictures released a film the very next month about dueling 19th-century magicians called "The Prestige," starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale.
The phenomenon of two very similar films being released around the same time is something known in the industry as “twin movies.” Basically, the similarities can be anything from storyline to theme to subject matter, as was the case with twin films "Jobs" (2013) and "Steve Jobs" (2015), which were both — you guessed it — all about the enigmatic founder of Apple. But regardless of where the similarities lie, there is no mistaking when two movies are each other’s twin, though the reasons why this happens can vary.
Yes, sometimes espionage is involved
It’s no secret that the movie-making business is cut-throat sometimes: just think about every film or TV show you’ve ever seen that follows a wannabe actor from a small town to Hollywood, where they scrape by for years hoping for their big break. (See: "La La Land.") Movie studios, similarly, are always looking to find the next big film that will rake in millions, carry it through awards season, and further elevate the studio's profile as a purveyor of quality storytelling. And sometimes the methods can be, let’s just say, a little bit unsavory.
An early and historic example of this is with 1939’s "Gone With the Wind" and 1938’s "Jezebel." According to Bob Mondello of NPR’s "All Things Considered," the release of these two Confederacy-era twin movies, both starring glamorous Hollywood starlets, was not a coincidence: it was the result of blatant spying and one-upmanship.
As the story goes, while MGM was still in the process of auditioning actresses for the lead role of Scarlett O’Hara, Warner Bros. caught wind that their rival studio had an antebellum epic in the making and decided to make one of their own. Warner Bros. scooped up the rights to the Broadway play "Jezebel" and created a big-screen version of it, starring Bette Davis. They released it while MGM was still shooting "Gone With the Wind," and Davis went on to win an Oscar that year; but as indisputable proof that slow and steady can still win the race, "Gone With the Wind" won 10 Academy Awards the following year, making it one of the most successful films of all time.
Sometimes studio heads move around
Perhaps one of the more memorable “twin movies” showdowns in recent memory was when Pixar’s "A Bug’s Life" and DreamWorks’ "Antz" were both released within six weeks of each other in 1998. The backstory for how this situation came to be is a complicated one, but the gist of it is that former Disney head honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg started DreamWorks animation in 1994 shortly after he departed Disney. Suffice to say, there was some bad blood between Katzenberg and the animation giant, which became increasingly clear as DreamWorks and Pixar went head-to-head to produce very similar feature-length CGI films starring talking bugs.
Following the overwhelming success of 1995’s "Toy Story," Pixar turned its attention toward its second feature, which they tentatively titled "Bugs"; at the same time, Katzenberg, now ousted from Disney, was revisiting some old ideas that were never developed, and came across a previous project called "Army Ants." When he learned that Pixar was planning on developing "Bugs," he decided that DreamWorks’ first animation feature would be "Army Ants," in a direct challenge to his former employer.
Ultimately, Katzenberg even bumped up the release date of what became "Antz" by five months, to October 1998, to make sure that it beat "A Bug’s Life" to theaters. Changing the production schedule reportedly cost DreamWorks an additional $15 million.
There’s also the timeliness factor
Sometimes, twin movies happen simply because there is an obvious timeliness to certain films, such as anniversaries of major life events, the death (or death anniversary) of a famous figure, or just a general mood or interest. Examples of these twin movies abound, including "1492: Conquest of Paradise" and "Christopher Columbus: The Discovery," two films that were released in 1992 to mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ journey across the Atlantic to discover what we now know as the Americas; 2000’s dual releases of "Red Planet" and "Mission to Mars" (the turn of the century clearly had people thinking about space and space travel); and the aforementioned "Jobs" and "Steve Jobs" biopics.
In more recent times, streaming services Netflix and Hulu got in on the twin movies conversation with the 2019 releases of "Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened" and "Fyre Fraud," respectively, which both documented the headline-making sham Fyre Festival of 2017. Hulu also went one step further by surprise-releasing its documentary a few days ahead of Netflix’s version, which sparked plenty of buzz on social media.
Films like "No Strings Attached" and "Friends With Benefits," which were both released in 2011, were less pegged to a specific historic event or person so much as they were linked to the zeitgeist of the moment: a return to romantic comedies, but with a modern twist. Moviegoers who had a tough time distinguishing between the two flicks, which both revolved around a pair of friends attempting to keep their relationships strictly physical, also had to contend with extremely powerful pairings: Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher in "No Strings Attached" and Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake in "Friends With Benefits."
(In a fun, ironic twist, Kutcher and Kunis, who first met as costars on the hit TV series "That '70s Show," eventually dated and married a few years after these twin films were released. Another irony? That Timberlake's former boy band, 'N Sync, made one of the best- and fastest-selling albums of all time: "No Strings Attached" … but that's not the movie he was in.)
There’s also just pure coincidence
As improbable as it might sound, there have been instances where it appears as though two different screenwriters come up with similar ideas completely independent of each other. The best example was chronicled in a "New Yorker" interview between Douglas McGrath, the screenwriter of 2006’s "Infamous," and writer John Seabrook.
McGrath recalled how he remembered calling his friend Bingham Ray, a film executive, to tell him that he’d finally finished his script about Truman Capote. “Good news,” McGrath remembered telling Ray, “I finished my script!” Ray responded in the affirmative: “I know. I’ve got it on my desk!” Only, it wasn’t McGrath’s script that Ray had on his desk, but someone else’s — "Capote," written by Dan Futterman.
“What are the chances of two scripts about Truman Capote going out at the same time?” McGrath said later in the interview. "Capote," starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, was released in 2005. "Infamous," starring Toby Jones, followed the next year.
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