| LOS ANGELES, March 1
LOS ANGELES, March 1 A bright blue hot-air
balloon whisked James Franco to the premiere of his new Walt
Disney Co movie, "Oz the Great and Powerful," delivering
the star to Hollywood Boulevard where he walked an emerald green
carpet with a yellow-brick road into the El Capitan Theatre.
The high-flying, and headline-grabbing, entrance last month
was the signature event of a Disney marketing blitz on major TV
broadcasts, social media and at Disney parks to stoke interest
in "Oz," a $200 million production that is its first release of
an expensive 2013 film slate. It debuts in theaters March 8.
The 3D "Oz" also debuts the first full year of Disney CEO
Bob Iger's strategy of investing in films with hefty budgets
that the media giant can turn into "brands" that bring in box
office receipts, spawn movie sequels, drive toy sales and
inspire theme-park rides.
After "Oz" lands in theaters, the Burbank-based company
scheduled three movies with budgets of more than $185 million
for release through July 3, which is when it expects to unveil
the $225 million film "The Lone Ranger," starring Johnny Depp as
the masked man's sidekick Tonto.
"If anyone else tried it, it would be a very risky
strategy," said Peter Sealey, former head of marketing at
Columbia Pictures and founder of The Sausalito Group.
"They're the only ones who could do it, based on the breadth
of their company, the movies they have and their ability to
squeeze money out of any film they make," Sealey added. "I
wouldn't be surprised if they don't have an Oz ride opening next
week in Orlando."
Following "Oz," Disney is scheduled to release on May 3 the
third installment of its Marvel unit's giant hit "Iron Man"
movies starring Robert Downey Jr. On June 21, it debuts
"Monsters University," a "prequel" to Pixar's 2001 blockbuster
"Monsters, Inc." that generated $562 million in worldwide
The Disney version of "Oz" is a prequel to the 1939 classic
"The Wizard of Oz" and tells the story a small-time magician
played by Franco who is mistaken for a wizard and becomes the
leader of the land of munchkins and witches.
"Oz" looks like a hit, said Phil Contrino, chief analyst for
Boxoffice.com. He projects U.S. and Canadian ticket sales of $65
million over the first three days, placing it among the
industry's biggest March openings.
Nostalgia surrounding the original film will help bring
families to theaters, he said.
"Look at success of 'Wicked' on Broadway," he said. "People
are open to the idea of the 'Wizard of Oz' being played around
with and new approaches taken."
Disney is taking no chances, and is spending up to $100
million on marketing to supplement nostalgia. The company
launched a New Year's campaign with a social media sweepstakes
urging fans to tweet resolutions with the #DisneyOz hashtag.
The "Oz" hot-air balloon, emblazoned with #DisneyOZ, made
stops at the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California, and
the Daytona 500, where Franco was grand marshal. It is heading
to Central Park next week and an appearance on "Good Morning
America" on Disney-owned ABC.
Television promotions for the film have been hard to miss.
Disney ran a pricey commercial during the CBS telecast of the
Super Bowl. It also enlisted Mariah Carey to sing a song from
the film on Fox singing contest "American Idol," according to
producer Joe Roth.
On ABC's "The Bachelor," host Chris Harrison interrupted the
dating competition to introduce a brief appearance by Michelle
Williams, Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz, the actresses who play
the film's three witches. A pair of Dorothy's red slippers from
the original "Wizard of Oz" made an appearance at ABC's Academy
Awards broadcast in a glass case, which was covered until red
carpet host Kristin Chenoweth unveiled it.
Disney experienced the expensive downside of its big-budget
film strategy last year, when the $250 million film "John
Carter" became one of Hollywood's costliest flops, saddling
Disney's studio with an operating loss of $84 million for the
fiscal second quarter.
Only a couple months later, Disney saw the other side of
releasing a big-budget movie when Marvel superhero mashup "The
Avengers" recorded the biggest domestic debut of all time and
earned more than $1.5 billion around the world.
After "John Carter" bombed, Disney named a new studio head,
Alan Horn, a former Warner Bros. executive with a record of
success managing "Harry Potter," "The Dark Knight" and other
major film franchises.
It also geared up its vaunted marketing machine, partnering
with the HSN shopping network on an Oz-inspired fashion line and
setting up a "Land of Oz" garden at Epcot, on top of the
millions it spent elsewhere.
"You have to hand it to Disney," said Jeff Bock, box office
analyst at Exhibitor Relations Co. "They do go all out. They're
going to spend $200 or $250 million on these productions and
make a real spectacle."