If you watch a lot of movies like I do, you’ll know that original concepts and ideas in blockbuster movies are few and far between. And it’s easy to see why; Hollywood prefers to play things safe and cater to the same crowds over and over again. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, given how much money these studios pour into their big tent-pole productions, you’ll understand why they would prefer to not step out of line in order to get most of their investment back. But, at the same time, when you try too many times to repeat the same kind of business over and over again, the end products will lack any definition of their own, and will look more transparently like a cash in. Sticking close to formula can only last as long as the end product stays fresh. Sometimes, filmmakers even run the risk of unfortunate timing, as their movie ideas are already being copied by another company before they are even able to get production up and running. These are known as copycat films, and sometimes their reputations as a movie only becomes defined by how they perform against their like-minded counterpart. While it is amusing to see how unoriginal some movies can sometimes be, it’s still apparent that the trend of mimicking other people’s movies is and will always be a part of Hollywood’s legacy.
So how do we necessarily know when a movie should be labeled a “copycat.” It basically comes down to when we recognize a movie exists only because of the presence of a near identical film. The movie doesn’t need to be exactly the same, but it should have all the same basic elements there. This could mean that it has the same plot structure with nearly identical characters; it could have the same visual style; or it could be depicting the same kinds of events, only from a different angle. What is most interesting, however, is that sometimes these identical movies are released within months, or even days, of each other by competing studios. This is what is commonly known in the industry as dueling; where the studios purposefully put their competing movies in theaters at the same time in order to see who will get the bigger numbers, purely for bragging rights. This is also a contentious spot between filmmakers and the studio heads, because usually the people who make the movies don’t see their work as a competition. The other area where you see a lot of copycat film-making is in the aftermath of a standout movie’s huge box office success, and all the wannabe movies that come out in it’s wake. These are the “knock-off” movies, and like most knock-offs, they tend to be of lower quality. But, sometimes it’s the juxtaposition that we see in each of these movies with their counterparts that actually make them interesting to us.
Dueling movies are interesting because of how we judge them based off their likeness to another film. It pretty much comes down to the “who did it better argument,” given how they are usually around the same level of quality. The more cliched the genre is, the more likely you’ll find a pair of dueling films in it. Action movies usually is the resting ground for most of these kinds of flicks and many times you’ll have action movies that are so alike, that they are usually confused for one another, and as a result, end up losing their individuality. Case in point, last year’s dueling set of movies set around attacks on the White House; the Antoine Fuqua-directed Olympus Has Fallen and director Roland Emmerich’s White House Down. Both movies follow the exact same premise, and were coincidentally released only months apart. Was it’s the studio system’s way of testing out the “White House Attack” sub-genre on two fronts, or were the studios just trying to jump on a trend before their competitors could get there? My guess is that, like most dueling movies, one film got the greenlight shortly after the other one did, only because one studio had the script already archived and saw the opportunity to put it into production after seeing the other studio take the bite. Essentially both were “Die Hard at the White House” story-lines and were safe bets for both studios as genre pictures. And it’s not the only time Hollywood has seen this happen. Back in the 90’s, we saw the battle of the volcano movies with Dante’s Peak (1997) and Volcano (1997) released together, as well as the summer of “destruction from above” movies like Deep Impact (1998) and Armageddon (1998).
While most of these “dueling” movies tend to come from loud and dumb action genres, it doesn’t mean that all copycat movies are necessarily sub-par. There are actually instances where two dueling movies are both high quality films. Case in point, the fall of 2006, when audiences were treated to two psychological period dramas centered around magicians; Neil Burger’s The Illusionist and Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. It’s unusual to see this kind of subject matter spawn two very similar yet very distinct films at the same time, but both movies have managed to stand out even after crossing paths at the box office. I happen to like both films, and it’s unfortunate that their histories are always going to be tied together because of their close release window, but it does represent the fact that two movies can duel it out at the same time, and still both be considered winners in the end. Animation is another field of film-making where you’ll see studios purposefully trying to undermine the others’ fresh ideas, but still with genuinely good products. In 1998, we saw the release of not one, but two computer animated movies centered around bug-based societies; Dreamworks’ Antz and Pixar’s A Bug’s Life. Both films are admirable productions, and are pretty much equal in entertainment value, but Dreamworks wanted to be the first out of the gate. So, they sped up production in order to beat Pixar to the finish line; a decision that may have undermined the film’s potential for success in the end. Pixar’s early success may have been attributed to the fact that Dreamworks was trying too hard to compete in the early days, which also became a problem when the dismal Shark Tale (2004) followed up Pixar’s Oscar-winning Finding Nemo (2003).
Apart from the dueling movies that we see from time to time, the much more common type of copycat film is the one that follow trends in the market. These are the “knock-off” movies that I mentioned earlier and their sole existence has been to capitalize off the enormous success of another big movie that has come before it. Of course, after the monumental success of Titanic (1997), we got Michael Bay’s insultingly cliched Pearl Harbor (2001); and the Oscar glory heaped onto Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) led to the expensive busts that were Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy and Oliver Stone’s Alexander (both 2004). More often than not, this is where you’ll find most of the copycat movies that have failed. Perhaps the trend that has led to the most failed knock-offs in cinema is the fantasy genre. A decade ago, we saw the enormous success of both The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter franchises begin, which led many other studios to believe that they could pick up any random fantasy source material out there and have a surefire hit on their hands. Unfortunately, not every one of these book series has the same kind of fan-base that Tolkein and Rowling has earned over the years. Over the last decade we’ve seen many one and done franchises fizzle at the box office, like 2007’s The Golden Compass, 2007’s The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, and 2008’s The Spiderwick Chronicles. The Narnia and Percy Jackson series managed to survive to make more than one film, but even they failed to live up to their lofting ambitions.
There is however a trend that does seem to be working well in Hollywood right now, and has continued to be profitable despite the fact that most of these movies are just copying each other’s formulas, and that’s the young adult novel adaptations. More specifically, the movies that have followed in the wake of author Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series and author Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series. These two franchise have become huge cash cows for their respective studios, and are currently defining the trend that we see today. While Twilight is far from perfect as a movie, there’s no doubt that it has left an impact on Hollywood in recent years, and you can blame the current trend off “sexy monster movies” directly on it. Honestly, would a zombie love story (2013’s Warm Bodies) ever have existed had Twilight‘s vampire-werewolf love triangle not hit it’s mark with teenage audiences first? Even bigger is the Hunger Games impact. Now, post-apocalyptic stories centered around adolescents are in vogue in Hollywood, with adaptations of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (2013) and Veronica Roth’s Divergent (2014) getting the big screen treatment. While these movies may not rise to the same levels as their predecessors, they are nevertheless finding their audiences, and it’s proving to Hollywood that this is still fertile ground to explore. We are likely to see many more Twilight and Hunger Games knock-offs in the years to come, given that YA adaptations are the hot trend of the moment, but that’s only because the audiences are less concerned about the quality of the adaptations themselves as they are about how well these movies deliver on the entertainment side of things.
Over the last decade, there has actually been an entire industry of film-making devoted to not only copying movies, but also just blatantly ripping them off. This has become known as the Mockbuster industry. More often or not they are cheap, direct-to video copycats of current blockbusters that are sometimes released on the same premiere dates. Usually, its the hope of these Mockbuster producers that uninformed consumers will be tricked when they see their “knock-off” on a shelf in the video store and think that it’s the same thing as the bigger movie that’s currently playing in a nearby theater. Mockbusters of course are no where near the same level of quality of a big budget film, and are usually defined by shoddy production values, D-list acting, and laughably bad special effects. One of the companies that has made it’s name providing these kinds of films to the market is called Asylum, and their library consists of many notable “knock-offs” like The DaVinci Treasure, Snakes on a Train, Atlantic Rim, Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies, American Warships, and of course Transmorphers. Now while many can criticize Asylum for ripping off other movies for a quick cash grab, they’ve actually been pretty upfront about their intentions and make no qualms about what they do. They are even finding an audience who do enjoy their laughable, low quality productions as a goof. In fact, Asylum actually hit it big last year with the surprise hit Sharknado when it premiered to a lot of fanfare on the SyFy channel. Which just goes to show that even Mockbuster film-making can find it’s place in the world.
But is the trend of copycat film-making just another sign that Hollywood is out of ideas. It all depends on whether or not the movies still work as entertainment in the end. It is kind of fun to contrast two like-minded movies, especially when they are almost indiscernible from each other. I think you can create a very applicable drinking game out of spotting all the cliches that a pair of dueling movies have in common; especially with films like Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, which I swear are nearly identical in everything but tone. And a Mockbuster can be entertaining for a laugh if you’re in the right state of mind. The only time when copycat film-making becomes problematic is when there’s no passion behind it. It merely exists to piggy-back off the success of a much better film. That’s something that you see in a lot of the failed franchises of the last decade. In the end, it’s okay to show off a little familiarity in your movie, just as long as you make the most of it. Even Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings had their inspirations before them, and let’s not forget how many adventures have followed the “hero’s journey” template to the letter on the big screen over the years. Audiences are smart enough to see when a movie’s story-line feels too familiar to them, and that’s usually what separates the copycat movies that stay with us from the ones that don’t.