If All This Seems Familiar, Well, It Should

Truman redux: Toby Jones and Sigourney Weaver in
Truman redux: Toby Jones and Sigourney Weaver in "Infamous," right, which covers similar ground to last year's "Capote," with Philip Seymour Hoffman, above, in an Oscar-winning performance. (By Deana Newcomb -- Warner Bros. Via Associated Press)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 15, 2006

Filmgoers could be forgiven for feeling a vague frisson of deja vu this weekend as they contemplated their choices at the multiplex. Let's see, should it be "Infamous," the buzzed-about indie biopic about Truman Capote? Or "The Prestige," a turn-of-the-century historical drama featuring romance, magic tricks and two of the best actors of their generation?

Wait a minute. Didn't we just see a Capote biopic and a magic-themed romance? And weren't they called "Capote" and "The Illusionist"?

It's happened again: Hollywood's version of you-got-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter, wherein coincidence, the zeitgeist or -- once in a while -- pure spite conspire to produce and simultaneously release two movies about the same thing. Remember the epidemic of volcano and asteroid movies in the 1990s ("Dante's Peak," "Volcano," "Deep Impact," "Armageddon")? Or the famous Wyatt Earp glut of '93 and '94 ("Tombstone," "Wyatt Earp")?

"People use Wyatt Earp as an example, but this is an extraordinary situation," says Christine Vachon, executive producer of "Infamous." Indeed, the phenomenon of movies in parallel development usually affects big, high-concept projects rather than low-budget art house pictures. "Maybe 'Valmont' and 'Dangerous Liaisons,' " she adds, by way of comparison.

But the track record of those two movies may not be one Vachon wants to repeat. "Dangerous Liaisons," Stephen Frears's adaptation of the Choderlos de Laclos novel (or, more precisely, Christopher Hampton's stage adaptation of it), starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer, was a modest hit when it came out in 1988. "Valmont," Milos Forman's adaptation of the novel starring Annette Bening and Colin Firth, came out nearly a year later to a mere fraction of the former's box office business.

"Capote," which was directed by Bennett Miller and starred Philip Seymour Hoffman in an Oscar-winning turn as the title character, went into production a few months before "Infamous," which stars the British actor Toby Jones as the mercurial author. According to Vachon, she and director Doug McGrath could have sped up their production to go head-to-head with Miller. "But for a lot of reasons, the distributors felt that would end up ultimately being not a good thing for our movie," she says. "And we'll never know."

Warner Independent Pictures, which is distributing "Infamous," decided to hang on to the movie for a year after "Capote" came out, a strategy many marketing experts think is flawed. (Coming in second is coming in last, as the saying goes.) But the studio is also using the first movie as a lever for its own. "Capote was not a household name two years ago," says Steven Friedlander, president of distribution for Warner Independent Pictures. "But because that part of the equation was already handled by the first movie, it gave us an opportunity to capitalize on the awareness level of the subject matter." Instead of the usual pattern of releasing an art house film in New York and Los Angeles first, then platforming to more markets, the studio is taking "Infamous" to around 200 screens in 60 markets.

What's more, the film's stable of stars -- Sandra Bullock, Sigourney Weaver and Hope Davis -- have made themselves available for publicity for "Infamous," whose tag line is "There's More to the Story Than You Know." Indeed, although "Infamous" covers the same period of Capote's career -- when he visited Kansas to write "In Cold Blood" -- the film delves more deeply into the social whirl of Capote's life in New York. "I think we'll benefit from curiosity among people who've seen the other film," says Laura Kim, executive vice president of marketing and publicity for Warner Independent. "But I also think ours is a livelier, frothier film that has the possibility of reaching a broader audience."

Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations, thinks "Infamous" has a tough road ahead of it, noting that Hoffman has more of a following than Jones, and that "Infamous" has received mixed reviews on the festival circuit. But he has higher hopes for "The Prestige," a historical drama about two magicians in 19th-century London vying for fame and love. The film stars Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine and Scarlett Johansson, and was written and directed by Christopher Nolan ("Memento").

"The conventional wisdom is that you're going to pale by comparison to the film that came out first," Dergarabedian says, referring to "The Illusionist," the magic-themed movie starring Edward Norton that came out in August. "But 'The Prestige,' because it's coming from a major studio, has a great marketing campaign, great stars and a great pedigree, I think will reverse that conventional wisdom."

Dergarabedian credits the trailer for "The Prestige," which was shown before "The Illusionist" this summer, for appealing to magic fans while setting itself apart. "I think the 'Prestige' trailer is one of the best of the year," he says. "And had it made 'The Prestige' look like an inferior product, showing it before 'The Illusionist' might not have worked in its favor. So if the movies are solid, it'll usually hold them in good stead."

Vachon agrees. "That's been my mantra from the beginning," she says. "That good work will rise to the top no matter what the circumstances are." And however "Infamous" comes out in comparison with "Capote," it's certain that one person, at least, will be pleased no matter what. Somewhere, in that special heaven reserved for unrepentant mischief-makers, Truman is chortling.

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