On the surface, this week's "Oz the Great and Powerful" and last week's "Jack the Giant Slayer" would seem to have a lot in common. Both are lavish, modern updates of familiar fantasy tales, inspired by Disney's billion-dollar success in updating "Alice in Wonderland" three years ago. Both have opulent visuals (and the 3D ticket surcharges that go with them). Both were directed by successful adapters of Marvel Comics franchises to the big screen ("X-Men" director Bryan Singer made "Jack"; Sam Raimi, who did the initial "Spider-Man" trilogy, did "Oz"). Both cost about $200 million to make.
And yet, "Jack" flopped, while "Oz" is poised for blockbuster success. Last weekend, "Jack" opened with $28 million, a dismal number considering its cost and its studio's expectations. This weekend, however, "Oz" opened with an estimated $80 million (the third-biggest March debut ever), a figure "Jack" will have a hard time reaching before its theatrical run ends.
How did "Oz" grab the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow while "Jack" got stuck with a handful of magic beans? There are a few lessons here, ones that studios hoping to clone "Alice" with modern-day fairytale retellings would do well to learn.
Picking the Right Property
Sure, "Jack and the Beanstalk" is an ancient fairytale that generations of kids have heard as a bedtime story, while "The Wizard of Oz" is a fantasy movie (and less well known, one of a series of books) that generations of kids have watched. But there's an emotional investment audiences have in the "Oz" tales that they don't have in the beanstalk story. Maybe it's because "Oz" has already been an unforgettable movie, while the Jack tale hasn't.
Or maybe it's that the "Oz" stories revolve around an American hero or heroine from modern times and a real place (Kansas), not a European hero from a mythical medieval past. Either way, audiences were always going to have a lot more love for a new "Oz" story than a new beanstalk yarn.
Actually, star power doesn't matter much in movies like these, where premise and execution are paramount. Still, as long as we're keeping score, "Oz" doesn't have huge stars, but it does have recognizable ones in James Franco (as the mountebank-turned-wizard) and Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, and Rachel Weisz (as the good and evil witches of Oz).
"Jack," however, is led by Nicholas Hoult (who, despite the modest success this winter of "Warm Bodies," is not a household name), with female lead Eleanor Tomlinson (an actress best known for her bit part in "Alice," the movie that launched this trend), along with supporting turns by such recognizable character actors including Ewan McGregor and Stanley Tucci. So, to the extent anyone is choosing whether or not to see these movies based on their casts, "Oz" comes out well ahead.
It wasn't clear whether the PG-13-rated "Jack" was an action-adventure meant to appeal to grown-ups or a fairytale for kids. The muddled marketing message resulted in an audience that was largely male and over 25, instead of the all-ages crowd Warner Bros. was hoping for. The PG-rated "Oz," however, was always clearly a family film, albeit one with built-in appeal to grown-ups with fond memories of the 1939 movie as well.
The Right Visuals Both are striking-looking movies, creating extravagant fantasy realms that are a treat to look at, but whatever clicked visually with "Alice" was bound to do the same with "Oz," since they used the same art team. Production designer Robert Stromberg (who won an Oscar for his "Alice" work) and art directors Todd Cherniawsky and Stefan Dechant gave "Oz" a similar look to their work on "Alice." Even Gary Jones' Victorian costumes for "Oz" seem reminiscent of the ones Colleen Atwood designed for "Alice."
Overseas Appeal No movie is likely to become a billion-dollar blockbuster like "Alice" without doing even better abroad than in North America. In this case, it helps that "Oz" is based on a universally known movie; the story of Jack and the Beanstalk is probably not nearly as well known throughout the world. As a result, "Jack" has earned only $23 million overseas, about half what it's earned domestically. "Oz," however, has earned about $70 million overseas, nearly as much as it earned here, with release dates in such markets as France and China yet to come.
"Oz" is not without its liabilities. Recognizable as they are, Franco and his female co-stars are not reliable box office draws. The film has a running time that surpasses two hours, perhaps taxing young viewers' patience and allowing fewer screenings per day. Some scenes may be too scary for the littlest moviegoers. Critics' reviews have been mixed. The plot takes some broad liberties with the story elements of a beloved classic. Plus, opening on the heels of "Jack" was a risky decision; if "Jack" had been a hit, it would have crowded "Oz" out of the marketplace.
Still, it seems clear that the creative and marketing decisions Disney made with "Oz" were mostly the right ones. And in the cramped marketplace, "Oz" made "Jack" look less like a hulking giant than like the witch crushed by a tornado-tossed house.
James Franco, Michelle Williams, and Mila Kunis
James Franko, Michelle Williams and Mila Cunis at the permiere of "Oz the Great and Powerful" at the Oktyabr Cinema in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013.
Mila Kunis strikes a pose at the premiere of "Oz the Great and Powerful" at the Oktyabr Cinema in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013.
Oscar-nominated Michelle Williams poses at the premiere of "Oz the Great and Powerful" at the Oktyabr Cinema in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013.
Mila Kunis and James Franco
Mila Kunis and James Franco stand side by side at the premiere of "Oz the Great and Powerful" at the Oktyabr Cinema in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013.
Mila Kunis, James Franco, and Michelle Williams
Mila Kunis, James Franco, and Michelle Williams huddle for photographers at the premiere of "Oz the Great and Powerful" at the Oktyabr Cinema in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013.
Mila Kunis, James Franco, and Michelle Williams
"Oz the Great and Powerful" stars Mila kunis, left, James Franco, middle, and Michelle Williams, right, pose for photographers during a photocall for the film "Oz the Great and Powerful" in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday Feb. 27, 2013.
James Franco goes solo for photographers during a photocall for "Oz the Great and Powerful" in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013.
Sam Raimi, Mila Kunis, James Franco, and Michelle Williams
From left, "Oz" director Sam Raimi, actress Mila Kunis, actor James Franco, and actress Michelle Williams pose for photographers during a photocall for "Oz the Great and Powerful" in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013.