By Susan Wloszczyna, USA TODAY
What old legend is one of the hottest female properties in Hollywood right now?
Betty White, you say?
Don't be dopey. Try Snow White, who has that golden girl beat by at least a century.
You don't need a magic mirror to know that this Brothers Grimm heroine is the fairest of all the storybook characters being recruited for the coming blizzard of live-action movies and TV series based on fairy tales. The raven-haired, ruby-lipped beauty figures prominently in ABC's new fall series Once Upon a Time. Disney, whose 1937 animated masterpiece Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs remains the standard against which all others are measured, has a martial-arts makeover set in China in the wings.
But most of the attention has been focused on the saga of the two dueling Snow White movies that are set to awaken in theaters next year.
Universal Pictures has lined up Charlize Theron as the evil queen, Twilight's Kristen Stewart as the victimized princess and Thor's Chris Hemsworth as her ally in Snow White and the Huntsman. Meanwhile, Relativity Media's still-untitled project is countering with Julia Roberts as the conniving royal, The Blind Side's Lily Collins (daughter of music man Phil) as Snow White and The Social Network's Armie Hammer as her prince.
Since the beginning of the year each hire has been widely reported, and even speculation over possible big-name choices has made headlines. Johnny Depp, Hugh Jackman, Viggo Mortensen, Tom Hardy and Michael Fassbender were in the running as Hemsworth's huntsman. Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder were considered for the queen until Theron was crowned. Saoirse Ronan of Hanna came close to claiming Collins' role.
But the rivalry reached a boiling point last month when Universal switched its opening date from Dec. 21, 2012, to June 1, 2012, jumping ahead of Relativity's version on June 29. Relativity quickly retaliated by moving to March 16. Not satisfied, the studio further raised the stakes by putting another of its titles, the Nicholas Sparks romance Safe Haven, up against Universal's Snow White in June and placing the action thriller Hunter Killer on Dec. 21, where Universal's Knocked Up spinoff This Is Forty now resides.
"The concept of dueling movies is a time-honored tradition," says Hollywood.com box-office tracker Paul Dergarabedian, citing examples such as Dante's Peak vs. Volcano and Tombstone vs. Wyatt Earp. "No one wants to have another film in the running with the same scenario. Once the first one comes out, it is hard to convince audiences to go again. In their mind, it's the same movie."
Still, considering it has been ages since Snow White needed a press agent, "all the media attention just might help both films," he adds.
A game of one-upmanship
Producer Joe Roth, who describes Snow White and the Huntsman as a swashbuckler akin to Pirates of the Caribbean, says the initial date change came about because "it felt like a summer movie, like an old-fashioned Disney action adventure."
He's not too rattled that Universal's attempt to open first was thwarted by Relativity. The former Disney exec went through the same thing in 1998, when Armageddon faced off with another disaster flick, Paramount's Deep Impact, which had opened two months earlier.
"Audiences went to both," Roth says, and Armageddon did considerably better at the box office ? $202 million compared with $140.5 million ? even though it opened second.
Roth is resigned that his Snow White is staying put: "I'd like to tell you it is coming out this Christmas, but that's not happening."
Relativity might have been forced to take action by Universal's decision to go sooner, but the studio is more than satisfied with its new springtime berth. As chief of production Tucker Tooley observes, the similar Alice in Wonderland opened during the same month last year and collected more than $1 billion in ticket sales worldwide.
Not that it is clear sailing: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (starring Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) arrives two weeks earlier, and the female-driven Hunger Games, based on the best-selling sci-fi book series, opens a week later.
"There is no such thing as a perfect date, but we wanted to be in the marketplace earlier," explains Tooley, who is also an executive producer on the untitled Snow White. "Alice opened right around spring break, and it seems like a good time for a family movie" with broad appeal, he says.
Most unusual about this one-upmanship is that Relativity, according to its website, has been a successful production partner with Universal for the past four years, helping finance 75% of its output, including Hop, Bridesmaids and the upcoming Cowboys &Aliens. But the company's expansion into distribution in 2010 means that occasionally the two studios will be at odds.
"We have had and continue to have a successful partnership," Tooley says. "But once we became a distributor, we also became a competitor."
The new embrace of Snow White could be partly attributed to how the traditional story's theme of youth pitted against experience feels especially relevant at a time of high unemployment. That's especially true in Hollywood, where growing old is considered the poisoned apple that can cause a star's career to fall into a deep slumber.
A timeless clash of wills
"Snow White features the basic conflict between young girl and aging woman, who feels threatened by someone whose beauty might surpass hers," says Jack Zipes, author of The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films. Both scripts retain that conceit, complete with running commentary by the magic mirror and queens who turn to unusual means to keep up their wrinkle-free appearances.
But Bernie Goldmann, a producer on Relativity's film, says anyone can relate to such a situation, not just women. "In our society, we are all replaceable," he says. "Someone else is bound to come along."
In ABC's Once Upon a Time, created by Lost writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, Snow White (played by Ginnifer Goodwin of Something Borrowed and TV's Big Love) is shown both in modern day as a school teacher nun and in flashbacks as her usual fairy-tale princess self. The premise involves a curse on storybook characters that can be broken only by Snow White and Prince Charming's long-lost daughter.
The pair have a theory for why Snow White and other such fantasy characters endure. "We love fairy tales for the same reason we buy lottery tickets," Kitsis says. "They offer hope for a life change. 'I'm no longer sweeping the floor for my stepsisters. I'm at the ball.' Lost was a series about redemption. This new show is about hope."
She?s no delicate flower
What the series shares with the two films in production is that Snow White is far from the naive damsel in distress popularized in the Disney animated feature. Says Horowitz: "She has very strong opinions and desires on how to handle crises in life, including her relationship with Charming."
Equally empowered is Snow White as played by Collins, while her prince is something of a bumbler, says director Tarsem Singh (The Fall, the upcoming Immortals).
"She is the one with (guts)," Singh says. "She straightens him out a bit."
As for Stewart, her Snow starts off downtrodden until the huntsman, who has been hired by the queen to kill her, teaches her to live in the woods and use weaponry. "She learns the way of the world," Roth says, "and toughens up."
Of course, both Snow Whites eventually avenge the wrongs done to them by the queen.
That sort of approach usually leads to happy endings in fairy tales, Roth says, but not when two studios are duking it out for box-office gold. "The only thing I will say is I've never seen revenge as a reason for people to go to the movies."