LOS ANGELES: It’s a clash worthy of a pair of almighty witches.
The Walt Disney Co. struck it rich this past weekend with its “Wizard of Oz” prequel “Oz the Great and Powerful,” selling $80.3 million in tickets domestically, putting it on track to become the most successful movie release of 2013 thus far.
But far from capping a three-year, $235-million production effort, the movie is shaping up to be the first shot in a battle between Disney and its Burbank rival Warner Bros., which owns rights to the iconic 1939 film but decided against its own reboot.
As Disney rolls out “Great and Powerful” around the world, it also plans a sequel and has high hopes for a merchandising line. Yet Warners, loath to watch a competitor cash in on one of its crown jewels, is trying to make up for lost time with an “Oz” cable TV show, a 3-D DVD re-release of the 1939 film and its own product line.
The fight over “Oz” bounty not only demonstrates the critical importance of a franchise in modern Hollywood but also raises the question — philosophically if not legally — of who should control the direction of one of the country’s most cherished properties.
“It’s in the great tradition of franchise movies with strange twists that ... the most successful execution of it (the 1939 film) isn’t owned by the studio that now has a monster hit on its hands,” said Marty Kaplan, a University of Southern California professor of media and entertainment who was once a writer and production executive at Disney, adding, “The competitive juices are flowing.”
The battle is given a sexy extra dimension because, since June, Disney’s studio operation has been run by Alan Horn, the longtime president of Warner Bros ousted in 2011. At Warners, Horn in fact passed on an “Oz” reboot — a nonmusical version of Dorothy’s adventures on the yellow brick road with the scarecrow and the rest of the gang that was to be directed by fan favorite Guillermo del Toro — before arriving at Disney to steer this film, which was then in postproduction but would require a significant amount of reshoots.
Horn, through a spokesperson, declined to comment on his studio’s movie, but Disney production chief Sean Bailey sought to downplay the Disney-Warner Bros. angle: “I don’t want to read too much into (it). When we started on this road and throughout we thought, ‘This was a big, amazing world with so many directions to explore.’ We thought it was worthy of further exploration. I think it is as simple as that.”
At the time that Disney began moving forward with “Oz” in 2010, basing its movie on original ideas and on L. Frank Baum’s books, which are in the public domain, Warner Bros. had three Oz films in the pipeline.
There was a sequel titled “Oz: The Return to Emerald City,” about Dorothy’s granddaughter returning to Oz to fight new evil, written by “A History of Violence” scribe Josh Olson; “Surrender Dorothy,” a modern-day spin on the tale that was set up with Drew Barrymore’s production company; and “The Wizard of Oz,” Del Toro’s nonmusical version penned by “Shrek Forever After” writer Darren Lemke that was to be produced by the company behind the “Twilight” films.
The latter achieved momentum after “Hellboy” director Del Toro dropped off New Line/ Warner Bros.’ adaptation of “The Hobbit” and executives approached him about taking on the new “Wizard of Oz.” The project reached a Horn-led “greenlight committee” at Warner Bros., according to a person familiar with the discussions who asked not to be identified because the person was not authorized to talk about them publicly, but the company opted not to make it for reasons that appeared to be both creative and, given the progress of Disney’s efforts, competitive.
It’s possible, though far from likely, that one of these “Oz” movies could now be revived. Marty Bowen, the “Twilight” producer behind the nonmusical “Oz,” said he still hopes to reprise the project in the wake of the success of “Great and Powerful.”
“This would seem like a film that Warner Bros. could hit directly in the bull’s-eye,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Warner Bros. declined comment on any potential “Oz” films.
Meanwhile, a few miles away from Warners’ Burbank lot, sequel plans are afoot at Disney with “Great and Powerful” producer Joe Roth and writer Mitchell Kapner. Roth said he saw a potential sequel as involving a lot of Baum’s characters but said the film “would absolutely not” involve Dorothy.
Kapner told the Los Angeles Times that the end of “Great and Powerful” leaves a lot of runway for the sequel. “It’s 20 years before Dorothy arrives,” he said. “A lot can happen in that time.”
But the “Oz” battle may come down to more than a legal question as a property that occupies a central place in the American imagination becomes a fought-over cash opportunity for Hollywood’s largest entities.
After last weekend, the stakes appear to be growing.
“There is always a rivalry for release dates, for genre dominance, for underlying material,” USC’s Kaplan said. “There is a dollar figure now attached to the success, (and) that only intensifies the competition.”