Film Studios Prepare Surprising Number of Similar Projects

Article excerpt

LOS ANGELES -- Hollywood executives are renowned for spewing hot air and showcasing volcanic tempers.

Now their movies are about to match their dispositions.

Competing studios are racing two megabudget films about volcanoes to the screen, and two other motion pictures putting magma on the marquee are in the works.

Double vision isn't limited to eruptions. There are two movies about Neanderthals on different studio drawing boards. More amazingly, rival filmmakers are nearing the starting blocks on two separate films about the late runner Steve Prefontaine. Meanwhile, Nelson Mandela is the focus of an upcoming feature film and cable television movie.

Screenwriters and producers say they are dumbfounded by the sudden double-dealing.

"It's very strange," said Laura Ziskin, whose Fox 2000 production company is making Volcano.

"There are ideas in the air and people grab on one all at once," she said.

The twin movies are more the result of a small network of cocktail party chatter than plagiarism.

Working screenwriters, like many who work in Hollywood, tend to circulate in small orbits, and hot ideas -- just like hot restaurants -- quickly become Chardonnay-circuit chatter.

Identically themed movies have bubbled up over the years, but rarely with the current frenzy. Tombstone and Wyatt Earp hit the multiplex within months of each other in 1993 and 1994; Christopher Columbus: The Discovery and 1492: Conquest of Paradise both debuted a year earlier; and Lambada: Set the Night on Fire and The Forbidden Dance came and went the very same 1990 day.

Hollywood history shows that when like-minded movies go toe-to- toe, at least one invariably suffers badly. Once Kevin Costner committed to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, comparable Sherwood Forest projects went the way of the catapult. After Dustin Hoffman signed on for the virus movie Outbreak, the nearly indistinguishable Hot Zone vanished.

The odds are good that both the volcano and Prefontaine movies will debut close to each other.

The makers of Volcano, about an eruption in Los Angeles, and Dante's Peak, focusing on lava in the Pacific Northwest, both plan to start cameras within the next several weeks. Dante's Peak will be the first out of the gate, but it's unclear who will be first in theaters.

For a while, though, it didn't look like Dante's Peak would even be in the race.

Screenwriter Les Bohem had just finished page 90 on his unsold Dante's Peak script when he read that Disney was developing a project called Ring of Fire, set largely inside a volcano. Then he heard a rumor that Michael Crichton's (Jurassic Park) next novel was about a volcano. Bohem said the feeling was a little like holding two pair in a poker game and seeing in the mirror that your foe clutches a full house.

"My tendency is to fold," he said. "But (producer) Joe Singer wanted to bluff."

It worked: Crichton's novel hasn't surfaced, and the Disney film, if made, will come out long after Universal's Dante's Peak (with Pierce Brosnan) and 20th Century Fox's Volcano (starring Tommy Lee Jones). …