Entertainment Copycats Can Be Overachievers

BOSTON (MainStreet) -- In Robert Altman's 1992 film The Player, Hollywood executives spend much of their time recycling.

Buck Henry earnestly pitches The Graduate 2, and others with the power to greenlight projects are inclined to do so for one described as being like "Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman."

Everything old is new again in all corners of the media world. Get a vampire and score a hit. Zombies? Bring 'em on. Britney begat Christina begat Ke$ha, and on and on it goes.

We took a look at five arenas where many have found it can pay off to ride on someone else's coattails:

Books

In auto racing, there is a strategy called "drafting" -- tailgating close to a leading car to reduce drag, letting them block wind resistance. In other words: Stick to the leader, imitate their every move, and you too can be a winner.

That, metaphorically, is the strategy book publishers have employed since the global phenomenon of Harry Potter.

The seven books about a boy wizard by J.K. Rowling have sold nearly 480 million copies and counting (and that doesn't even include e-books, a format Rowling only recently acquiesced to). Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the conclusion to the series, rang up more than 11 million copies on its first day of release and was the fastest-selling book in history. Potter-related book, theater, DVD and toy sales have pulled in nearly $25 billion in sales.

The series itself is an homage of sorts, drawing thematic inspiration from everything from The Bible to Grimm's Fairy Tales, The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. Its phenomenal success has, in turn, led to a whole lot of wannabes jumping on the young adult fiction train.

In many cases these "copycats" are hardly total ripoffs, but they nevertheless benefit from the demand for similar themes, such as Rick Riordan's books of Percy Jackson and the Olympian, which substitute budding Greek gods for wizards in training.

Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series, another must-read for tweeners, mixes the supernatural with post-pubescent angst and has a lot to thank Rowling's creation for (almost 30 million copies and a movie franchise, to start with). There are no dragons, house elves or flying broomsticks, but it might be safe to assume that without Harry there would be no Bella, at least not books with such marketing muscle and pop culture infiltration.

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins (think of it as The Running Man meets The Road, but for teens) also has benefited from the rush for the next big thing in young adult literature, as have The Vampire Diaries (now a hit on TV as well) and Cirque du Freak (made into a movie) and many others.

According to the Association of American Publishers, 2010 book sales for children's book categories (which include "picture books" merged with the sort of novels similar to Harry Potter and its peers), when compared with the previous year, were up 4.5% ($48.9 million in sales) for paperbacks and, despite a 9.5% drop-off in hardcover books (no new Harry to be had, perhaps?), those sales still reached $694.3 million.

Crunching numbers from from R.R. Bowker's Publishers Weekly, a recent article on the literary Web site McSweeney's reported that, between 1995 and 1997, the number of young adult titles published was a mere 3,000; by 2009, it had spiked to more than 30,000 (although, once again, figures tend to blur categories for kids' books and those for young adults).

Further evidence: Despite a 20% decline in "literature" reading by young adults from 1982 to 2002, the National Endowment for the Arts found rates swing to a 21% increase from the initial point of decline from 2002-08 -- a period right in the wheelhouse of Pottermania (although the NEA drew no specific correlation).

The young adult is so hot that even established "adult" writers such as John Grisham and Carl Hiaasen are taking a stab at it.

Magazines

Vanity is contagious and, from a business perspective, it doesn't hurt to have a cult of personality.

Multiple magazines have sprung from the success of others. Time led to Newsweek. The popularity of Playboy led to a raunchier competitor, Penthouse, as well as tamer "lad mags" such as Maxim and FHM.

Success has also come to the ranks of personality-driven publications.

Building upon the television success of its namesake, Martha Stewart Living hit newsstands in 1990 from publisher Time. Ownership of the once quarterly publication was retained by Stewart when she and Time parted company in 2007, and it is now published monthly by her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.

According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, for the six months ending June 30, Martha Stewart Living had a total paid and verified circulation of more than 2 million.

That publication's success no doubt was on the mnd of the folks behind the 2004 launch of O, The Oprah Winfrey Magazine, which like others has a long tradition of featuring the star prominently on its cover -- and an audited circulation of nearly 2.5 million, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. A sister publication was discontinued in 2008.

In 2005, The Reader's Digest Association began publishing Every Day with Rachael Ray, a magazine revolving around the perky Food Network personality who went on to host her own daytime talk show. In a year's time it went from seven issues a year to 10. It was named "Magazine Launch of the Year" by Advertising Age magazine.

In October an announcement was made that the magazine would be acquired by Meredith, the media and marketing company behind Better Homes and Gardens, Parents, Family Circle, Ladies' Home Journal and Recipe.com.

At the time of the announcement, the magazine had, according to Meredith, "an audience of 7.3 million with a rate base of 1.7 million, as well as a robust Web site."

Financial terms of the agreement will not be disclosed, and the acquisition will not have material effect on Meredith's fiscal 2012 performance.

Less successful, however, was comedienne and talk show host Rosie O'Donnell's 2000 foray into magazines. O'Donnell's name and visage took over the former McCall's magazine in an attempt to benefit from (and compete with) the success Oprah had. Rosie started strong with a circulation of 3.5 million, but by 2003 a power struggle between O'Donnell and publisher Gruner+Jahr USA led to its demise and a volley of lawsuits.

Movies

Periodically there will be a rash of movies that follow a same theme or character. We'll get competing Robin Hoods one year and nothing but war movies or jewel heists the next.

One thing is certain: If, for example, one of the many failed attempts to resuscitate the western genre succeed we'll see screens filled with that decades-long abandoned story type.

In the world of Hollywood, being familiar and accessible equals big box office. Hence, all the Pulp Fictions and Blue Velvets of the world will never add up to the crowded world of Adam Sandler movies, films about talking animals and implausible romantic comedies.

When big success strikes, count on Hollywood to milk a concept for all it is worth.

Consider Star Wars, a classic of science fiction. By George Lucas' own admission it had elements of B-movie serials such as Flash Gordon, classic westerns and even the Japanese samurai movie The Hidden Fortress by director Akira Kurosawa.

What came in the wake of Star Wars was a long list of copycats, ranging from good and bad, successes and flops.

Battlestar Galactica was a TV show intended to tap into the Star Wars audience. It was successful enough to warrant a big-screen release of a beefed-up pilot episode, a spin-off set in the 1980s and the more recent revisionist take that ran on the SyFy network as well as a prequel, Caprica.

Star Wars' success led to some hits that, without a thirst for science fiction, might never have made it past the script stage: Alien, Saturn 3, and The Last Starfighter.

Disney's first ever PG venture, The Black Hole, aped Star Wars' style right down to the look of its B.O.B. robots.

There were also also-rans such as Battle Beyond the Stars, Galaxina, Jason of Star Command, Flash Gordon (the one with the Queen soundtrack) and Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone to name a few.

Skipping to other genres, Disney's The Lion King is, at times, nearly a shot-for-shot remake of the Japanese animated classic Kimba the White Lion.

The Terminator bore too close a resemblance to an Outer Limits scripts by famed science fiction writer Harlan Ellison. The litigious Ellison won a settlement and on-screen credit, likely aided by the fact that writer/director James Cameron admitted he was an influence.

Director Quentin Tarantino is at least upfront about how much of the 1987 Hong Kong movie City on Fire starring Chow Yun Fat he paid tribute to with his big break, Reservoir Dogs.

The animated Pixar film Cars, is -- and admittedly so -- basically a rewrite of the 1991 Michael J. Fox film Doc Hollywood. The shiny race cars scored far bigger, with a worldwide gross of roughly $462 billion (not counting all that themed merchandise), compared with Doc Hollywood's $55 million.

Music

It is a bit dishonest, academically, to point a finger at recording artists guilty of building success on an imitation of what came before. Almost all modern rock owes a debt to early bluesmen and rollicking rollers such as Little Richard, often described as "the architect of Rock 'n' Roll."

Nevertheless, The Monkees get a bad rap as being a pre-packaged Beatles rip-off, a reputation we'll defend them from a bit. Sure, that's what media executives had in mind, but at least they had great songwriters (Neil Diamond), eventually wrote and produced teir own material, gave Jimi Hendrix a spot as their opening act and counted no less than John Lennon as an outspoken fan of their TV show.

Ripping off someone else in music doesn't mean the copycat can't be successful as well.

Vanilla Ice's Ice, Ice Baby was a huge hit, despite copping the bassline from the Queen/David Bowie collaboration Under Pressure.

George Harrison's My Sweet Lord led to a successful lawsuit for sounding a bit too much like The Chiffons' He's So Fine. It didn't stop the song from being a No. 1 hit -- in fact, it scored that honor twice in the U.K. (upon its release and after Harrison died). Harrison also eked out a minor hit about the whole affair titled This Song.

Born this Way by Lady Gaga showed that she could not only recycle shtick Madonna trotted out 20 years ago, but could craft an aural echo of Vogue.

Television

The popularity of reality shows and the appeal of cheap-to-make programming for cable networks has made television more addicted to imitation than ever.

We've always been able to count on shows looking to ride the coattails of hits -- and sometimes the knockoffs have been successful in terms of either critics or ratings.

NBC's medical drama E.R. led to CBS' Chicago Hope. Diff'rent Strokes' formula was not-so-strangely similar to Webster. Dallas birthed Dynasty and Andy Griffith's move from black-and-white sheriff to murder-solving lawyer Matlock led producers to try a similar trick with Dick Van Dyke as a crime-solving doctor in Diagnosis: Murder. The Honeymooners was reborn with animated cavemen as The Flintstones.

Ghost Whisperer was not too far ahead of the similarly themed Medium. Family Guy is often maligned, fairly or not, as a rip-off of The Simpsons. Name a daytime "judge" show and they have Judge Wapner's original The People's Court to thank. In 1982, ABC had a moderate hit with Raiders of the Lost Ark imitator Tales of the Gold Monkey.

In terms of reality shows, we've had Discovery's Flip That House and A&E's Flip This House within months of each other and other variations on the theme still hitting airwaves even as the housing market has tanked. The bad economy may also be why we not only have Pawn Stars but Hardcore Pawn as well -- both using the same porny puns.

The Web site TheTVNews.tv tallied 17 baking shows that all managed to seek the success of Ace of Cakes on Food Network and its imitator on TLC, Cake Boss. That number was as of January, and we gave up trying to count additional sweet-tooth-themed shows that have tried to cash in on cookies and cupcakes since.

-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.

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