Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
November 19, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

Movies have duked it out over everything from how the world would end (1998’s Deep Impact and Armageddon) to how the West was won (1993’s Tombstone and 1994’s Wyatt Earp). The latest contenders taking it to the mat: two films about author Truman Capote’s experience in Kansas researching his 1966 best-seller In Cold Blood.

In terms of creative coincidences, that isn’t any stranger than two teams of filmmakers deciding the time is ripe for a meteor-themed blockbuster. But in the case of action movies, there’s a motivating factor that keeps both sides going: big bucks at the box office. And that’s what makes the dueling Capote films so odd. The story of how a gay New York City author set out to write about a family’s brutal murder and ended up falling in love with one of the killers might make Oscar voters swoon, but can it possibly compel audiences to shell out the price of a ticket…twice?

United Artists and Warner Independent (Warner Bros.’ boutique division) are both betting the answer is yes; and in the last three years, neither filmmaking team has so much as flinched in the neck-and-neck race. ”It’s unfortunate,” says UA’s president, Danny Rosett. ”You never want to be in a situation with competing projects.”

But, on Oct. 30, UA seemed to be pulling ahead when director Bennett Miller (The Cruise) began shooting the $7 million biopic Capote — which stars Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role, as well as Catherine Keener and Chris Cooper. That puts UA about two months ahead of the start date for Warner’s $13 million Every Word Is True. Although it’s a slim margin, the general rule is that the first into the cineplex is more likely to clean up (the exception being Armageddon, which hauled in $200 million versus Impact‘s $140 million).

If Warner Independent isn’t panicking, it’s because True has a big advantage: major stars. Written and directed by Douglas McGrath (Nicholas Nickleby), the movie features Sandra Bullock (as Capote pal and To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee), Ashley Judd, Sigourney Weaver, and Mark Ruffalo, who stepped in to play murderer Perry Smith (a role he passed on in Capote) when Mark Wahlberg dropped out. Oh, yes, and Gwyneth Paltrow cameos as Peggy Lee. With that star power, Warner Independent (which wouldn’t comment for this piece) risked casting a relative unknown, British actor Toby Jones (Finding Neverland), as the author —after Johnny Depp, Matt Damon, Jude Law, and Sean Penn passed.

So who will prevail? ”There’s so little you can control; you just keep moving forward,” explains Capote producer Caroline Baron (Monsoon Wedding). ”You can have every element lined up until the day before shooting, and then you’re not making the movie anymore.” Not to mention the pitfalls that can occur post-filming, including, in Capote‘s case, the possibility of getting lost in the shuffle as UA is folded into new parent company Sony.

Which may be what Warner Independent is hoping for. Regardless, True producer Christine Vachon (Boys Don’t Cry) insists she has little concern that getting beaten to the box office means getting beaten at the box office. ”It’s all about who makes the best movie,” she says. ”And of that I have no doubt.”

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