| LOS ANGELES
LOS ANGELES 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 tickets sales.
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."
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)