Did Hollywood Copycat Syndrome Doom ‘White House Down’?

Leslie Gornstein
Movie Talk

Burning Question: Why did "White House Down" die at the box office? It had Channing Tatum in a tank top! — B. Ellings, Tennessee


And Jamie Foxx in a suit.

And yet another story featuring White House interns scurrying in horror as some terrorist/alien/zombie horde/disease descends upon them, hell bent on revenge/colonization/world domination/survival.

For the record, the Sony movie did OK, logging just under $28 million last weekend, versus more than $45 million over at Monsters University.

But if the plot of "White House Down" sounds particularly familiar, that’s because it debuted just two months after the release of "Olympus Has Fallen." Sure, Olympus had Gerard Butler instead of Tatum. But the tale was the same: White House under extreme duress. (Villain: Terrorist. Motive: World domination.) And the people at Sony, which released White House Down, know all this.

"It would have all been fine if we didn't come out two months after Olympus Has Fallen,” an unnamed Sony exec bitched. "Their gross plus ours would have been a big hit."

[Related: What Really Happens During a 'White House Down' Moment?]

Of course, the fact that "White House Down" had two expensive actors and a pricey director didn't help the bottom line, either. But the big reason for the disappointing performance is precisely what that anonymous Sony exec said: Tatum's movie, tank top notwithstanding, is just way too similar to "Olympus Has Fallen." In fact, by the time "White House Down" arrived this past weekend, "Olympus" already had made more than $160 million worldwide, sucking much of the air (and money) out of the democracy-in-crisis market.

"The log-line, concept and spin is nearly identical for these two films," Exhibitor Relations box-office analyst Jeff Bock tells me.

Why would Sony take such a risk in the first place? Well, Hollywood has a history of releasing copycat films close together without much financial blowback.

And just days ago, "White House Down" director Roland Emmerich, talked about how he would win the showdown:

"You do your film," he said. "They do their film. I remember when there were two volcano and two meteor movies. I thought, 'Isn't Hollywood stupid to do that?' All of a sudden, I was in the same situation, and I said, 'I'm not stopping.' I like my script. I have the two coolest dudes I always wanted to work with together in one film. I'm not stopping.'"

[Related: Why I Blew Up the White House Again, By Roland Emmerich]

For those keeping score at home, he was referring to:

  • 1997's face-off between "Dante's Peak" and "Volcano"; "Dante's Peak" was released first and wound up outgrossing the other lava-loving flick worldwide, $178 million to $123 million. Both very respectable.
  • 1998's battle between "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon"; "Deep Impact" got the early start and made a blockbuster $349 million globally but was eclipsed by "Armageddon's" ginormous $554 million.

There's really no simple formula for whether the early bird catches the box-office worm.

In 1998, DreamWorks put out the animated insect picture Antz, which opened at No. 1. A month later came Disney-Pixar's "A Bug’s Life," which also opened at No. 1. "Antz" ultimately banked $172 million worldwide; "A Bug's Life" did $363 million.

"Mirror Mirror," co-starring Julia Roberts and Lily Collins, made more than $166 million worldwide in March 2012; then came "Snow White and the Huntsman," which logged more than twice that ($397 million).

Still, those twinsie films were different enough to hold audience interest. "White House Down" and "Olympus Has Fallen"? Not so much.

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"Audiences likely couldn't discern between the two, and it turns out, with all his clothes on, Channing Tatum is interchangeable with Gerard Butler," says Bock.

"Now if this was 'Magic Mike in White House Down,' now we're talking about a No. 1 debut and plenty of action figures to go along with it."

Maybe next time?

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