Repo: The Plagiarism Opera
It's Gonna be a Bloodbath... At the Opera Tonight...
Disclosure: As with the my previous post about Rocky Horror, I want to be up front that I am a major fan of Repo! The Genetic Opera. However, I was unaware of this story when it happened because I came into Repo! The Genetic Opera later. Despite that, it seemed like an interesting story worth recapping.
In 2008, Repo! The Genetic Opera was released on just 11 screens and little fanfare from Lionsgate, the film’s distributors. However, Lionsgate didn’t do a great deal for the film before release either, with it being over 90% financed by the movie’s director, Darren Bousman (best known for the Saw movies).
The film featured a dystopian future where a mega corporation would happily loan money to people for organ transplants and then send repo men after those organs should they miss their payments.
With limited promotion for the film, Bousman took the film on the road. Along with the film’s writers and creators, Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich (who also stared in the film as the Graverobber), Bousman took it to audiences directly and soon found a cult following.
However, in 2010 Universal Studios released a blockbuster film entitled Repo Men. Starring Jude Law and Forest Whitaker, it too told the story dystopian future where a mega corporation would finance organs and send repo men out to reclaim them when the recipient missed their payments.
The stage was set for a different kind of plagiarism battle. This time, it would be the fandom that took umbrage at the alleged plagiarism and the creators on both sides working to assure everyone that there was no issue at all.
Let The Monster Rise
Repo! The Genetic Opera has its roots all the way back to 1999. Then, Zdunich and Smith had founded The Galler, a two-person performance troupe that specialized in 10-minute operas. One of those 10-minute operas was entitled The Necromerchant’s Debt, which was first performed in May 2000.
The popularity of the short version meant that the duo quickly worked to expand it into a full opera, which they did by 2002, where it was performed in and around the Los Angeles area. That was also around the time Bousman became involved with the duo and began working to try and bring the opera to the screen.
After years of false starts Bousman, as mentioned above, largely financed the film himself to get it released, which it was in 2008.
The story of Repo Men, on the other hand, “begins” in 2009 when Eric Garcia, who was also the author of Matchstick Men, published a book entitled The Repossession Mambo. However, the book’s history goes back well before that, with an unpublished 13-page story being circulated as early as 1997. Also before the book’s release Garcia had been working with Garrett Lerner to create a screenplay based on the book, which is what eventually became Repo Men.
But, when Repo Men was released, the similarities between it and Repo! The Genetic Opera took center stage. However, it wasn’t the creators pushing that narrative. Instead, it was the fans and the media.
Things You See in a Graveyard
Shortly after the release of Repo Men, fans of Repo! The Genetic Opera noticed similarities between the two films. Several of them began to post online about the similarities and raise questions about whether Repo Men was an original work, or if there were plagiarism in the opposite direction.
Much of the attention was focused on Garcia and The Repossession Mambo. One of the most prominent to raise such questions was SpookDan Walker, who posted a list of some 25 similarities between the two works.
Indeed, some of the similarities are very striking. In addition to similar basic concepts, both films feature a strong, addictive painkiller that glows. In Repo! The Genetic Opera it’s “Z” or “Zydrate”, which is a glowing blue liquid where, in The Repossession Mambo it’s “Q” and a glowing red powder.
However, many of the similarities were less convincing such as both having themes dumpster diving and the presence of music in both works.
But, as similar as the two films are in concept, they are very different in almost every other regard. Repo! The Genetic Opera is a goth/rock opera where nearly every line is performed in song. Repo Men is a traditional Hollywood blockbuster more centered on action. Though they have a surprisingly similar premise, the two films go in wildly different directions.
The accusations also ignored the fact that The Repossession Mambo has a pedigree that goes back to 1997, before the first versions of The Necromerchant’s Debt were performed. Even if the similarities were strong enough to sustain an allegation of plagiarism, the histories do not. Much like the allegations of plagiarism between The Shape of Water and The Space Between Us (not the later ones), no analysis of the similarities can survive an analysis of the history.
That, in turn, is exactly the point the people behind the films tried to get across.
Zdunich took to his blog to not only clear the air that he, nor the others behind Repo! The Genetic Opera, had anything to do with Repo Men, but to also say that the films are drastically different and that the new film is not a threat to his film.
As fans of Repo!, it seems that one of the things you love about our project is its uniqueness. Repo Men does not threaten this. It exists almost as the antithesis to what you love about Repo!: it’s mainstream.
Zdunich also added that there was no plans to file a lawsuit and, even if they did have such a desire, the issue was out of their hands as Lionsgate owned all of the rights.
Bousman did something similar on his blog, where he laid out the history of Repo! The Genetic Opera. The post was mostly a bid to defend himself against questions that were also being raised about the originality of Repo! The Genetic Opera but ends with a call to peace, saying that there is enough room for both films in the market.
Elsewhere, Bousman actually encouraged fans of Repo! The Genetic Opera to support Repo Men, saying that:
I consider myself lucky to have such a rabid fanbase as the REPO ARMY. I hope, and urge them all to support REPO MEN, as it helps bring awareness to our movie as well. In the end — we are all artists here, in love with our art. Bashing REPO MEN is the exact opposite thing that I want fans to do… Repo! The Genetic opera is about acceptance, not alienation.
Sometime after the initial controversy Smith, Zdunich, Bousman, Lerner and Garcia all met at a Los Angeles diner to discuss the controversy. They quickly concluded that no one had ripped off anyone else and that the similarities were just coincidence, similar concepts taken in different directions.
However, the calls for peace did little to quell the controversy, which raged on for months.
Unfortunately for Repo Men, the film did not do very well at the box office, falling far short of earning back it’s $32 million budget. It was widely considered to be one of the biggest busts of the year.
As the film faded into obscurity, so did the controversy. That, in turn, is how this story ends, not with a bang, but with it being quietly shelved.
To be clear, no one plagiarized anyone. Repo Men has a pedigree that goes back to 1997, before the first renditions of The Necromerchant’s Debt were performed. However, The team behind Repo! The Genetic Opera had no way to access the work until 2009, one year AFTER the film was released (and a decade after the first performances of The Necromerchant’s Debt).
This is simply two similar concepts being created in parallel and then heading in very different directions.
While it’s unlikely that the controversy had any major impact on the lack of success for Repo Men, the film had other significant issues with audiences, it still couldn’t have helped.
But the facts of the case make it pretty clear that this is a tale of two groups of very creative people coming up with similar concepts. These cases do happen, as with the even less likely case of Dennis the Menace, and it’s a big part of why one has to look at both similarities and the facts behind the works before determining plagiarism.
Much as with The Shape of Water vs. The Space Between Us, this case is a reminder that similarity does not always equal plagiarism, especially when you’re dealing with ideas and concepts.