The competing Western biopics prove that audiences won't go for the same story twice

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”Tell them Wyatt Earp is coming and hell’s coming with him.”
-Kurt Russell, Tombstone

”My name is Wyatt Earp. It all ends now!”
-Kevin Costner, Wyatt Earp

In a summer that has already seen its share of flops — Beverly Hills Cop III, City Slickers II, Renaissance Man, and The Cowboy Way — none is bigger or more surprising than Kevin Costner and director Lawrence Kasdan’s ambitious Western Wyatt Earp. Since the $60 million film opened on June 24, it has grossed a tepid $15.6 million and serves as the most stinging reminder yet that when Hollywood pours its resources into two similar projects, the second one tends to open in the shadow of the first.

The blame for Earp‘s low grosses is being pinned on everything from its three-hours-plus length, which reduces the number of daily showings, to a surprisingly negative critical reception (”’Too long’ seemed to creep into the first few paragraphs of a lot of reviews,” sighs one executive at Warner Bros., the film’s distributor). But many Hollywood executives — including some at Warner — acknowledge that what hurt Earp most was last winter’s Disney release Tombstone, which starred Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and exceeded industry expectations by grossing $55 million.

Disney’s timing of Tombstone‘s video release only added insult to injury. Right before the Wyatt Earp opening, Disney shipped more than 400,000 cassettes to retailers, who are reporting swift rental business. ”It’s one of our premier rentals,” says James Mulligan, assistant manager at one of New York City’s Tower Video stores. ”Everyone who’s renting Tombstone knew that there were competing films. This one beat Wyatt Earp to the theater — and on video.”

Hollywood tradition holds that when competing studios try to bring the same story to the screen, the first one out of the gate — Kevin Reynolds’ Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, The Three Musketeers — forces stragglers to drop out. But recently studios have taken a damn-the-competition, full-speed-ahead approach that, in the wake of Earp‘s consumptive box office, now has them worried. One producer speculated about the likely fate of two similar baseball kiddie films, Columbia’s Little Big League and Disney’s Angels in the Outfield. Which would bother Disney more, he wondered — to see Little Big League do well and deplete the audience, or (as was the case) see it open poorly, which might indicate no interest at all?

Despite the daunting rate of failure, no studio wants to drop out of a race that could yield huge profits at the finish line. Columbia is still pressing forward with its female pirate adventure Mistress of the Seas, as yet uncast, even though the director-actress team of Renny Harlin and Geena Davis is already starting production on Carolco’s similar Cutthroat Island. And Warner Bros. and Twentieth Century Fox are going head-to-head with two rival movies about killer viruses; both are scheduled to start production on July 18. Fox’s Crisis in the Hot Zone, starring Robert Redford and Jodie Foster, is based on a nonfiction New Yorker article. Warner’s fictional Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman, was developed by Fugitive producer Arnold Kopelson when he failed to land the rights to the magazine story. Though Outbreak is currently targeted for winter and Crisis is slated to follow it in the summer, Fox claims it isn’t worried. ”We don’t think we’ll be able to do the best movie we can make by trying to beat the other guy,” says one Fox executive. ”Arnold Kopelson is in a race by himself.”

Other filmmakers, too, resist rushed deadlines. ”The trouble with racing to get things out,” says one of the industry’s top action producers, ”is that between deal making and picture making, picture making always suffers. It’s physics. No matter how much you scream at the airport or yell at the pilot, you still can’t fly [from L.A.] to New York in two hours.”

Of course, last doesn’t automatically mean least; in 1988, three prior body-switching comedies made no impact on Big, which grossed more than $100 million. But one rule remains firm: In the words of a production executive at Universal, ”You have to be a lot better than the other guy if you come in second.” Which seems to be where the Wyatt Earp filmmakers made their mistake. Some suggest that the real fault lies with a Hollywood that supported two talents like Lawrence Kasdan and Kevin Costner in their belief that they could win the day with an ambitious, downbeat, revisionist $60 million David Lean-style epic. As Tombstone was going into production last spring, Costner insisted on pushing ahead with his vision of the frontier lawman’s entire life; he also supported Kasdan’s refusal to trim several sequences. ”It was an incredibly stubborn move not to [shorten the film],” says one Warner executive.

Many industry insiders see the behavior of Costner and Kasdan (who both declined to comment for this story) as a classic case of Hollywood hubris. ”The way we operate,” adds one studio executive, ”between agents, studios, and talent, everybody is either so afraid or so full of s— that artists lose perspective and think they don’t need any assistance.”

Everyone agrees, however, that just about any studio in town would have made the same assumptions that Warner did: that the Kasdan-Costner duo would easily improve on any lower-budget effort with lesser stars. (Tombstone cost half as much as Earp.) In fact, many in Hollywood look at the combined talent in the two projects and wonder about what might have been. ”It’s a tragedy that Costner didn’t do Tombstone,” sighs one producer. ”It’s too bad they couldn’t have all pooled their resources. That movie would have been huge.”

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