Studio rivalries aren’t exactly rare and near enough every summer you can find two or more billion dollar companies swinging their dicks at one another at the box office. But have you ever stopped to think what would happen if the studios stopped the bickering, put their dicks away and combined their resources to create a singular genre-defining super-movie? Well as weird as that sounds, pretty much that exact thing happened in the 1970’s with The Towering Inferno.
Considered a classic of the disaster film genre and boasting one of the most star-studded casts of the era, The Towering Inferno was quite literally two different albeit similar premises smushed together and given the backing of two billion-dollar mega-corporations.
Specifically the movie was borne out of a fierce bidding war between Warner Bros, Fox and Columbia Pictures over the rights to the novel The Tower, which is about a skyscraper that catches on fire Warner Bros ultimately won, paying author Martin Stern a cool $400,000 to the rights to his book about a what admittedly sounds like a fucking terrifying premise.
But let’s be real here, a building catching fire isn’t exactly a novel or original idea and it just so happened that there was another book being optioned in Hollywood around the same time. The Glass Inferno which as you’ve probably guessed, is about a building that catches on fire. Like, a lot.
Fox, sensing an opportunity to fuck over a rival, bought the rights to this books and rushed it into production as quickly as possible. While this might sound petty it happens, well, a lot. So much so there’s a term for it, Twin Films. Basically, films released around the same time featuring similar themes, plots or occasionally actors.
Now there are a lot of reasons these films come to be but the most common reason is that studios are run by people with massive, fuck off swollen egos who can’t admit they’re wrong. Which more often than not results in neither side producing a similar film willing to compromise, back down or give up and audiences being asked to choose between watching two films that are broadly speaking, the exact same thing.
This is something producer Irwin Allen was keenly aware of and he was somehow able to bend the ear of an exec at Warner Bros and convince them that rather than try to compete with Fox at the box office they should team up and just make the definitive building that catches on fire movie. Chief to Allen’s argument was the fact that making a movie about a building that catches fire would necessitate building and then subsequently burning down a costly set and that having the backing of two studios would let them, quite literally, burn more money on screen.
The exec was swayed and a landmark deal was struck between the two business behemoths with each deciding to split the costs whilst also combining their resources. For anyone who hasn’t realised it yet, the film’s eventual title The Towering Inferno is a combination of both original novels titles. Likewise, the plots of each were combined and the final film features characters and concepts from both. Something that actually ended causing a massive pissing contest when the time came to make the poster.
You see, prior to the Voltron style team up, each studio had picked a leading man to front their film, specifically Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, and each had been promised top billing. The issue was, now that both men were set to lead the film which man was more on top? To which an ordinary person would probably say, who gives a fuck as long as everyone’s getting paid?
Remember though, these are actors we’re talking about here so of course this was a massive issue behind the scenes with neither man being willing to have his name be lower than the other or share top billing. Also, to be clear, when we say top billing we mean that literally and the argument was about which actor’s name would appear further up on the film’s poster.
Eventually a compromise of sorts was reached when an artist decided to just write the names on the poster diagonally. This was both men technically had top billing depending on which way you read it. Steve McQueen if you read right to left or Paul Newman if you read it top to bottom.
But it gets even pettier than that because in addition to being paid the exact same amount of money McQueen tracked down and bitched at the screenwriter about not having enough lines. To get him to fuck off the screenwriter, according to industry legend, went through the script and edited it so that both men would have the exact same amount of lines.
Which to us seems kind dumb given they were paid same amount of money, surely being paid the same amount for less work is the easiest and best way to piss off the other guy. Right?