When veteran filmmaker Roland Emmerich was first offered the chance to direct a movie about terrorists taking over the White House, he couldn’t believe his luck.
“It’s such a good idea,” Emmerich, the money-minting director of movies such as “2012,” said last week at a Culver City editing facility, where he has been holed up polishing his new film, “White House Down.” “I was surprised no one had done it before.”
It turns out someone has. Just before.
Emmerich’s movie, about a wannabe Secret Service agent with a Messiah complex who serendipitously ends up at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. during a fiery terrorist attack, will come out June 28. That’s barely three months after the release Friday of Antoine Fuqua’s “Olympus Has Fallen” — about a wannabe Secret Service agent with a Messiah complex who serendipitously ends up at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. during a fiery terrorist attack.
“Olympus” and “White House” provide the latest and in some ways strangest example of what happens when a pair of film-industry heavyweights decide to stubbornly stay the course. They also demonstrate how, more than a decade after 9/11, Hollywood is eager to get back to doing what it does best — taking famous landmarks and blowing them to smithereens.
The question is: How much of that destruction will Americans want to see?
The film business likes to avoid movies with similar premises. History shows they can be disastrous.
In 2004, Oliver Stone’s “Alexander” bombed six months after “Troy,” another ancient epic. In 2006 the Truman Capote biopic “Infamous” failed to gain any traction after the success the previous year of “Capote.” Last spring, “Mirror Mirror,” the first of competing two Snow White movies, sputtered as audiences waited to see the second movie, the darker-toned “Snow White and the Huntsman,” two months later.
The White House films have even more in common than many of these movies. Perhaps not since the natural-disaster pictures “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” 15 years ago — Hollywood’s quintessential case of accidental fraternal twins — have a pair of movies so close in tone, plot and symbolism hit theaters in such quick succession.
And while both “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” were successful, they were released in an era before realms such as cable drama and Internet video had come into their own. Those movies also didn’t share an iconic building as a key selling point.
“If all they have in common is a generic concept, two movies in the same season can work. But if they’re similar in their specifics, it could be a problem, especially for the second film,” said Bruce Nash, a film-industry expert who runs the box office website the Numbers. “The White House movies would seem to be much closer to that second category.”
How did it happen? Basically, it’s the result of a high-stakes game of Hollywood chicken.
It began last April, when Sony bought the “White House Down” script and hired Emmerich to direct, setting up a battle with the existing “Olympus” project, which was financed by Millennium Entertainment and had already retained Gerard Butler as the agent.
Millennium responded by hiring director Fuqua, best known for the Oscar winner “Training Day,” and moving up the production, which would also star Aaron Eckhart as the president, from September to July. It felt secure in its position, according to a person involved in the film who wasn’t authorized to talk about it publicly, because “White House” had no cast yet, and big studio projects with no cast can languish for years.
But Sony caught Millennium off-guard by quickly announcing that it had hired Channing Tatum as the agent and Jamie Foxx as the president and then in August saying that it was pushing up its release date from November 2013 to this June.
Not to be outdone, FilmDistrict, which came aboard several months later to distribute “Olympus,” announced that it would bring out its movie in April, then rescheduled it a month earlier.
“I’ve never worked at a pace like this before,” a harried-looking Fuqua said at his own edit bay near L.A.'s Miracle Mile a few weeks ago. “Six weeks of prep — that’s kind of crazy.”
Filmmakers were motivated by a belief that the moment was right for a story like this.
“These attacks are something that’s in the collective unconscious, and Hollywood is responding,” Eckhart said. Added Fuqua, “I think after Sept. 11 we realized something like this could happen; we came to understand how fragile we are.”
But the zeitgeist isn’t always enough to sell one movie — let alone two.
“Olympus” has been tracking strongly ahead of its release, suggesting a hit, which could prompt audiences to see Sony’s June film as, essentially, the “other White House movie.”
Even if “Olympus” performs poorly, it could spell worrisome news for Sony, suggesting there isn’t the audience for West Wing shootouts that the studio had hoped.
On the other hand, “White House Down” has some arrows in its quiver. As a summer film from a director with a proven track record and one of the industry’s largest studios, the movie will have more built-in awareness and marketing firepower. And “White House’s” budget, estimated to be at least $150 million, is more than twice that of “Olympus,” ensuring big special effects.
Each side is eager to emphasize their film’s differences. Butler noted that Fuqua and Emmerich have vastly different directing styles. Emmerich said the films aren’t as similar as they first appear.
“Theirs is a quite different movie — it’s R-rated with a foreign threat, and ours is PG-13 and a threat from within,” the “White House Down” director said. (“Olympus’” villains are a North Korean paramilitary group while “White House” focuses on homegrown radicals.) “There have always been two or three similar movies at around the same time. There’s room for both,” he added of the movie, which Sony has mostly refrained from marketing until after “Olympus” has cleared theaters.
FilmDistrict CEO Peter Schlessel said that he too saw a deep public appetite."I don’t think there’s a lack of interest in the White House that people will be satiated by one movie,” he said.
Incidentally, destroying the White House wasn’t easy for either director. On the Montreal set of “White House Down” last fall, Emmerich had built a large replica of the White House. Accuracy and scope were key, as evidenced by massive state rooms, meticulous tricked-out presidential bedrooms and the entire South Lawn, all of which had been spread in neighborhoods across the city.
“I want [President] Obama to see this and say, ‘How did they know?” said production designer Kirk Petruccelli, as near him a team of dozens assembled the North Portico.
Down in Shreveport, LA., it turns out Fuqua was attempting the same thing. “It was 110 degrees and we were trying to build half the White House. I don’t think the state of Louisiana had ever seen anything like it before,” he recalled recently, noting he instituted an informal rule among his crew not to talk about that other movie.
Sony marketing executives declined to comment for this story. But in a sign that the studio has plenty of skin in the White House-destruction game — and, perhaps, can hedge its bets — it holds the DVD rights to both films.