The Evolution of Movies

Posted on March 2, 2008 by Peter Turney

In a previous post, I discussed multiple, independent, simultaneous discovery in science and technology, which supports the claim that science evolves. The authors of Multiple Discovery devote a chapter to arts and literature, but their main focus is science. I was thinking about multiple, independent, simultaneous creation in the arts, and I recalled several cases where two movies on the same theme were released at about the same time, apparently by coincidence:

  1. Deep Impact (1998) and Armageddon (1998)
  2. Capote (2005) and Infamous (2006)
  3. Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and Valmont (1989)
  4. The Matrix (1999) and The Thirteenth Floor (1999)

Popping up to the meta-level, I realized that I was certainly not the first person to notice these “coincidences”. ProhibitOnions has a huge list of films with similar themes and release dates. The interesting question, from an evolutionary perspective, is whether these are coincidence or deliberate. ProhibitOnions writes:

“In the film industry, two or more films with similar plots or themes may be released within a close period of time. Sometimes, this may be coincidental as the result of two studios independently hoping to capitalise on a current trend. Other times, however, a script will be bought and put into production by one studio, and a competing studio — which may hear about the production through word of mouth, trade papers (such as Variety), or through the internet — will put into production a film with a similar plotline, in an effort to capitalise on its box office potential.”

The movie producers may claim coincidence, even when it is not true, in order to make their work seem more original. However, it seems to me that coincidence is indeed the most likely explanation for most of these cases:

“It is curious, considering how cautious and market-researched the film industry is, to realise how many times this has happened; how many times a production team has alighted on some out-of-the-way topic only to discover a rival group rolling up at the exact same moment.”

“But if these rival projects arrive like conjoined twins, each scrambling for the same food supply, it’s hardly surprising that one will flourish and the other will flounder. And generally the victor is the film that takes pole position, that shoulders its sibling out of the way.”

“Two movies about the 1976 taste test in which US wines beat their French counterparts are shooting. On past experience, one will sink.”

(Note the metaphorical allusion to biological evolution, with competing twins. But how can a conjoined twin shoulder its sibling out of the way?) Deliberately copying another movie, without allowing time for it to fade from public memory, and given that the first movie has a head start, is clearly not a good strategy to make a profit.