An ‘Oz’ clash of the titans

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, which put 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 producing 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: it is planning an “Oz” cable TV show, a 3-D DVD re-release of the 1939 film and plenty of its own products.

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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 USC 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 who was 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 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.

Through a spokesperson, Horn 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],” he said. “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 Baum’s books, which are in the public domain) Warner Bros. had no fewer than three Oz films in the pipeline. (The company came to acquire rights to the original “The Wizard of Oz” when it merged with Turner in 1996; that company had acquired the early MGM library a decade before.)

There was a sequel titled “Oz: The Return to Emerald City,” about Dorothy’s granddaughter returning to Oz to fight new evil and 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 and set 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 even 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 (it’s not easy tackling a classic) and, given the progress of Disney’s efforts, competitive.

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It’s possible but 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, noting Warner Bros. success with young-adult fantasy adaptations such as “Harry Potter.”

A spokeswoman for Warner Bros. declined comment on any potential “Oz” films.

Although a feature could be tough sledding in the wake of “Great and Powerful,” television — where networks frequently and explicitly imitate rivals’ successes — could be easier going.

Warner Bros.’ Warner Horizon TV division has in the last few weeks begun peddling a fantasy TV series titled “Red Brick Road” to cable networks. Positioned as “‘Game of Thrones’ in the Oz world,” the show imagines an alternative Oz in which an evil queen has taken charge. The pitch package poses the premise: “Dorothy went down the yellow brick road. So where did the red brick road go?” — alluding to the path not taken in the 1939 film.

Meanwhile, not far 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 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.”

On the merchandising front, Disney’s plans are broad in scope, though less extensive than those for its animated franchises such as “Cars” or “Toy Story.”

Various “Oz” toys manufactured by Jakks Pacific, a Malibu-based toymaker, are being peddled at Toys ‘R Us. The company also has licensed cosmetics company Urban Decay to make “Oz"-themed makeup available at Sephora (sample shades: “tornado” and “spell”) and has partnered with clothing designer Sue Wong on a line of dresses inspired by “Oz” costumes for sale at retailers such as Bloomingdale’s.

But Disney is hampered because it can’t sell well-known items, such as ruby slippers from the 1939 musical, and must also contend with generic Oz-themed material such as Dorothy’s blue gingham dress and products licensed by Warner Bros. that have been on the market for years.

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Warner Bros., in competing with merchandising juggernaut Disney, will face its own hurdles as it releases new products. In addition to new Oz-oriented Barbie dolls and a Monopoly game, this year will see the company and its partners launch new Oz-centric housewares, stationery and even a coffee-table book, as well as a 3-D DVD re-release of “The Wizard of Oz,” all for the film’s upcoming 75th anniversary.

Lutz Muller, chief executive of Klosters Trading Corp., a Williston, Vt.-based consumer products consultancy, said that two prominent companies concurrently offering different takes on the same intellectual property is unprecedented.

“Obviously, there is going to be competition,” he said, adding that it is possible Warner Bros.’ products could get an unintended push from Disney’s film.

As it has with “Great and Powerful,” Disney will take great legal pains to avoid direct references to the 1939 film, while Warner Bros. will play up that it has, essentially, the real deal.

But the “Oz” battle may come down to more than just 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 this 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.”

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