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New films test if Land of Oz still paved with gold

Actress Idina Menzel performs a number from "Wicked" at The American Theater Wing's 58th Annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall in New
Actress Idina Menzel performs a number from "Wicked" at The American Theater Wing's 58th Annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall in New

By Mike Collett-White

LONDON (Reuters) - The entertainment industry has long viewed The Land of Oz as a road paved with gold, and two major new movie projects will test the public's appetite for yet more spin-offs from L. Frank Baum's novel published 113 years ago.

Not every project based on the American author's adventures in Oz has been a hit - even with Michael Jackson as Scarecrow, the 1978 adaptation "The Wiz" suffered poor reviews.

But the award-winning, record-breaking musical "Wicked", now in its 10th year, may have emboldened studios to revisit one of the world's most popular and lucrative fantasy properties.

"I don't think we're in danger of tiring of Oz," said Rhidian Davis, program manager at the British Film Institute, which is hosting a big retrospective of Oz-related cinema running at its Southbank home in London from March 1-14.

"One of the reasons for this success is the way in which children come to power, children topple adult figures in their world - Dorothy dispatches the Wicked Witch with a bucket of water," he said of the lasting Oz phenomenon.

"It's terrifically empowering in a way for children to think you can change things."

The first test comes on Friday with the theatrical release of Disney's 3D adventure "Oz the Great and Powerful", which reportedly cost $300-325 million to make and market and has been described by the New York Times as a "breathtaking gamble".

A lavish prequel to the original story, the movie stars James Franco in unfamiliar blockbuster territory as the wizard, after more familiar stars Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp dropped out of the project, according to Hollywood trade press.

Industry estimates predict a hefty North American box office opening weekend of $65-75 million for the picture, directed by Sam Raimi. But experts also doubt it will have the staying power to match Disney's similarly-pitched 2010 hit "Alice in Wonderland" which enjoyed global ticket sales of $1 billion.

ANIMATION ADAPTATION NEXT UP

Next up may be 3D animation movie "Dorothy of Oz", which is near completion and due to hit theatres late in 2013 or early in 2014, according to producer Ryan Carroll.

With production costs of more than $60 million, it is a mid-level project by Hollywood standards but one that could help put Oz on the map for the digital age through mobile apps, video games and virtual worlds.

"This is an ideal time to revisit something of this creative nature and bring it up to date," Carroll said of the long-term project from Summertime Entertainment.

"Licensing and merchandising and the ongoing creation of games will be a big part of it," he told Reuters. "Today entertainment takes on more than just watching a movie - we're creating a virtual world, apps, a whole environment."

Summertime is basing the first movie of what it hopes will be a long-running Oz franchise on a novel by Roger Baum, L. Frank Baum's great-grandson who produced a series of spinoffs.

As in "Oz the Great and Powerful", there has been a tendency for movie adaptations to steer away from the 1900 Baum novel "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" as source material even though it is in the public domain.

That is because the 1939 adaptation, starring Judy Garland as Dorothy in the most famous and successful of all Oz films, still has such a passionate following, while several elements, including the ruby slippers, are still guarded copyrights.

"We're already in development of the second (movie) project and have a total of 10 stories to draw from," Carroll explained of the deliberate move away from the original novel.

"What we have are unique intellectual properties not in the public domain. We have unique characters owned solely by us."

He is hoping that "Dorothy of Oz", with "Glee" star Lea Michele voicing the title role and Patrick Stewart, Dan Aykroyd and James Belushi among the cast, will be ready for a big global media splash at the Cannes film festival in May.

"The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" was a hit almost from the word go, and had already been turned into a stage play by 1902.

Due to popular demand, Baum had returned to Oz more than a dozen times in print by the time of his death in 1919, and co-founded one of the first film studios in Los Angeles that produced three feature-length Oz films in its short life.

In 1939 came MGM's "The Wizard of Oz", one of the most elaborate productions to come out of Hollywood and which, according to the U.S. Library of Congress, is the most-watched film of all time.

(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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