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When Films Collide
By Gregg Goldstein, Alex Lewin, and Kerrie Mitchell

Salma Hayek and Jennifer Lopez are going brow-to-brow on dueling Frida Kahlo movies. Can both projects survive? Here's what happens when Hollywood gets into double jeopardy.

Two fiery rocks hurtling toward earth, two menacing volcanoes, two killer viruses, and two men pimping their significant others for $1 million in Vegas—filmmakers are repeatedly stumbling upon the same wild ideas simultaneously and then engaging in a high-stakes game of chicken to bring their projects to the screen. Sometimes one film will squeeze out its rival. Other times the two will go head-to-head right up to release.

Recent years have seen numerous prominent pairs duel their way toward theaters: Witness Antz vs. A Bug’s Life, The Truman Show vs. EDtv, and Mission to Mars vs. Red Planet. (And who can forget Big vs. Like Father, Like Son vs. Vice Versa vs. 18 Again! in 1987-1988?) Currently, no fewer than three projects are in the works about the USS Indianapolis, a World War II cruiser that sank and left hundreds of sailors floating in shark-infested waters for more than four days.

Being the first film to begin preproduction doesn’t always ensure higher returns, nor does being the first into theaters. But the tighter the race, the juicier the story.

Frida Be You and Me

In 1991, Salma Hayek, then a virtually unknown Mexican soap-opera actress in her early 20s, arrived in America and found her calling: to star in a movie about painter Frida Kahlo, who died in 1954 after surviving polio, a crippling bus accident, and disloyal husband Diego Rivera. After hearing that New Line Cinema was planning a biopic, to be cowritten and directed by La Bamba’s Luis Valdez, she sent her tape to their office and began calling nonstop. “Finally someone got on the phone and said, ‘You’re too young for the part,’ ” Hayek recalls. “I said, ‘Well, then, you won’t get to do this movie till I’m old enough.’ ”

Hayek was not the only one interested in Kahlo. Madonna, Robert De Niro, Venezuelan director Betty Kaplan (Of Love and Shadows), and producer Nancy Hardin (Showtime’s Noriega: God’s Favorite)—not to mention Valdez—were also pursuing the artist’s story. Valdez’s film, criticized for casting the non-Latina Laura San Giacomo, was dormant by 1993.

Then, in 1997, Trimark Pictures, which now owned the rights to a Kahlo biography optioned by producer Hardin in 1988, signed the now-hot Hayek to star and coproduce. She convinced Miramax Films to buy out Trimark’s project, and Julie Taymor (Titus) eventually agreed to direct.

Meanwhile, Valdez had resuscitated his project, and Kaplan was getting in gear. Both approached Hayek but were unsuccessful. Valdez then attracted an even bigger Latina star, Jennifer Lopez, and snagged Francis Ford Coppola to executive-produce the film for United Artists. How does Hayek feel about Lopez in the role? “That’s an unfair question,” she says. “The other film is another film. It has nothing to do with me.” Currently, her $12 million project has a spring start date and a supporting cast that includes Alfred Molina, Ashley Judd, and Edward Norton (who’s dating Hayek). The Kaplan project (with only Edward James Olmos cast) looks doubtful, and the Lopez film faces scheduling problems. Can even two Fridas survive? “Absolutely not,” Hardin laughs. “Bye-bye, Jennifer.”

Kicking Asteroids

An apocalyptic comet and an apocalyptic asteroid were both aiming to hit theaters in the summer of 1998. The comet had been on course for almost 20 years. Producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown (Jaws) had brought Deep Impact, a proposed remake of the 1951 Paramount Pictures film When Worlds Collide, to Barry Diller at Paramount in the late ’70s. After Diller left the studio, the project fell by the wayside until the duo dusted it off in 1994 and sent it to Amblin Entertainment, where Steven Spielberg became interested in directing it. Meanwhile, producer Gale Anne Hurd had been developing a story about an asteroid-obsessed man; she brought her script to then chairman of Walt Disney Studios, Joe Roth, in late 1996. At that time, the coast seemed clear. “Joe said, ‘You know, I’ve heard things have slowed down on Deep Impact because Steven wants to direct it and he’s unavailable,’ ” Hurd recalls. Michael Bay (The Rock) was tapped to direct the film that would become Armageddon; the script was revised; and producer Jerry Bruckheimer was hired to manage the $135 million budget, Disney’s largest ever at the time.

By that point, however, DreamWorks had formed, and Spielberg had decided to make Impact one of its first productions, partnering with Paramount (which owned the original film’s rights) to split the costs of the $80 million gamble. Director Mimi Leder had no idea that Armageddon was coming until her prep work began. “It really pissed me off,” she says of the news. A showdown ensued. “Steven stated that he didn’t want to have the second comet movie that summer,” Zanuck recalls. The forces behind Deep Impact “tried to dissuade us from making the film,” says a source on Armageddon. “They claimed they were up and running when we knew they weren’t very far along.” Both sides would later accuse the other of stealing elements from their scripts. Ultimately, however, the crash was far from disastrous. Deep Impact, starring Téa Leoni and Robert Duvall, opened in May and reached $140 million; Armageddon, starring Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck, took Independence Day weekend, eventually grossing more than $200 million.

Girls Will Be Boys

If it hadn’t been Hilary Swank up there on Oscar night, accepting the best actress award for her portrayal of Brandon Teena, it might have been Drew Barrymore at the lectern, forgetting to thank her significant other. The Charlie’s Angels star was once attached to a version of the story about the murdered Nebraskan teen who masqueraded as a boy, with Diane Keaton set to produce. Keaton’s company had optioned the rights to All She Wanted, a 1996 book by Aphrodite Jones about the Teena case; her project eventually landed at Fox Searchlight. But when the company acquired Boys Don’t Cry after sneaking a peek at some early footage during 1999’s Sundance Film Festival, the Keaton movie lost steam. Her team and Jones each sued (and ultimately settled with) the studio. In the end, many tears were shed—including those of a jubilant Oscar winner.

Germ Warfare

In the mid-’90s, deadly microorganisms were all the rage in Hollywood. Twentieth Century Fox owned the rights to the New Yorker article on which Richard Preston’s nonfiction best-seller, The Hot Zone, was based. They green-lighted a project starring Robert Redford and Jodie Foster, with Ridley Scott to direct. But Warner Bros. was also planning a film about a deadly disease that arrives in the U.S. via monkey, titled Outbreak and starring Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo. (Producer Arnold Kopelson had bid on the “Hot Zone” rights and lost.) Both movies were reportedly set to start shooting on the same day, July 18, 1994. Outbreak kept to its target and went on to earn $68 million. Hot Zone did not: Foster dropped out just days before filming, and Redford was close behind her. The project never recovered.

You Bet Your Wife

“You brought me to Las Vegas and you turned me into a whore!” Pop quiz: Is this line from (a) Indecent Proposal or (b) Honeymoon in Vegas? If you answered (b), you’re correct, but the fact that you’d even have to guess was then independent producer Sherry Lansing’s nightmare back in 1991. She was in preproduction on Paramount’s Proposal, director Adrian Lyne’s drama based on a 1988 novel about a young couple (Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson) whose relationship is tested when a billionaire (Robert Redford) offers them $1 million if the woman sleeps with him. Writer-director Andrew Bergman had already begun casting Honeymoon, Columbia Pictures’ comedy about a young couple (Sarah Jessica Parker and Nicolas Cage) whose relationship is tested when a wealthy gambler (James Caan) offers to forgive a poker debt if the woman agrees to spend a weekend with him . . . and then offers her $1 million if she’ll marry him. “I ran into Sherry at some airport, and she said, ‘What’s your new movie about?’ ” Bergman recalls. “I described the plot, and she turned white as a sheet.”

The directors, however, were not particularly threatened by each other, and as it turned out, neither had reason to be. Honeymoon opened in August 1992 to moderate commercial and critical success; Proposal opened nearly eight months later to feminists’ scorn but blockbuster ticket sales ($107 million). “[Proposal] was done really seriously,” Bergman says now. “Ours was like a Damon Runyon story.” Oddly enough, Lyne always thought that his was, too. “I remember thinking [Proposal] was a whimsical idea, sort of fluffy and fun,” he says. “I didn’t think it was going to be taken so desperately seriously.”

Lava's in the Air

In late 1995, Hollywood prophets decreed that the future of action movies lay in spouting lava, erupting mountains, and Pompeii-like mayhem. In the fall of that year, Universal Pictures purchased a script called Dante’s Peak, about a volcanologist who tries to save a town from an impending eruption. Soon thereafter, Fox 2000 bought Volcano, about a freak eruption in downtown Los Angeles. Universal and Fox execs briefly discussed partnering on one of the two screenplays. “Each studio said, ‘You drop yours and come in on ours,’ and neither wanted to do that,” recalls Alex Gartner, a former Fox 2000 executive vice-president.

Dante’s Peak started filming in the summer of 1996, with Pierce Brosnan in the lead and a reported budget of nearly $100 million; Volcano, with Tommy Lee Jones and an initial budget of $70 million, began filming shortly afterward. Both productions stepped up their complicated schedules. “You felt like you were in the middle of a spy story,” Dante’s producer Joseph Singer says. “Everybody in Hollywood wanted to report to you on where the other movie was.” As Paul Neesan, a former vice-president at Universal, admits, “We were tracking every step of their production.” Although Volcano executive producer Lauren Shuler Donner claims that “it wasn’t as big a deal to us,” she says that someone from Dante’s, whom she declines to name, “was aggressively competitive and would get our call sheets [daily shooting schedules that indicate how far along a film is].” When Universal announced that Dante’s would premiere on February 7, 1997, Volcano’s producers conceded the race and settled for an April 25 release. “At some point you don’t want to jeopardize the movie just to get it out,” former Fox 2000 president Laura Ziskin says. Neither film exploded at the box office: Dante’s pulled in $67 million and Volcano garnered a dismal $49 million.

Special thanks to Lulu for this transcript!