Oz’s big box office take was a bit of a surprise. Let’s see if we can’t figure out why it did well.
Premise: (from IMDB) A small-time magician arrives in an enchanted land and is forced to decide if he will be a good man or a great one.
About: “Oz The Great and Powerful” just slayed the box office for a second weekend in a row. It has now earned 145 million domestically. Joe Roth originally wanted to pursue the project for Disney because, while at the company, he’d always struggled to find a fairy tale that revolved around a male protagonist. This was the first time a legitimate option presented itself. The studio went out to Robert Downey Jr. first, who declined, and then Depp (of course – it’s Disney), who declined as well. Eventually, Franco scooped up the slop and signed on the dotted line for a cool 7 million.
Writers: Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire (based on the novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by Frank L. Baum)
Details: 130 minutes long
I’m so torn when it comes to Hollywood. The idealistic part of me wishes the system would change. The realist in me realizes that’s not happening anytime soon. To that end, we need to keep studying what Hollywood looks for. We need to understand what they celebrate and why so we can best position ourselves to break in. Does that mean we shouldn’t put our own twist on things? Our own voice? Of course not. But it doesn’t hurt to understand the system when writing for the system.
“Oz The Great And Powerful” is that bread and butter movie Hollywood makes in order to fill their coffers with money. It’s what they make so they can make more movies. So they can keep their parent companies happy. So those companies can keep their shareholders happy. It’s big. It’s the kind of “event” movie you have to see in the theater. It caters to just about every demographic. And it can turn into a franchise – the most desirable of all Hollywood products.
But it also brings up some interesting questions, such as, “How come THIS Hollywood movie was a success ($80 million opening weekend)? And Jack The Giant Slayer, which I saw a couple of weeks ago, was a bomb ($27 million opening weekend)?” They’re both catering to the same audiences. They’re both 3-D. They’re both event pictures you need to see in the theaters. They’re both based on pre-existing properties (both within the public domain I believe). How come one became a mega-hit and the other a smudge on the box office sidewalk?
And don’t give me this nonsense that The Wizard Of Oz was a bigger property. They’ve made TONS of Wizard of Oz related movies/series since the original and almost all of them have been disasters (“Tin Man,” “Return to Oz,” “The Wiz.”). I actually thought “Oz The Great and Powerful” was going to bomb big time. I thought an early draft of the script was troubled. I thought the previews were too shiny and CGI-ey. I didn’t think James Franco could front a movie of this magnitude (Am I the only one who thinks he’s never not been stoned during a performance?). I just thought the whole thing was a miscalculation. Then it did well, catching me off guard. And I thought, “Damn, now I have to figure out why.”
So I guess the first question is, was the movie any different from the draft of the script I read? Yes. The big problem I had with the script was that Oz’s flaw wasn’t defined. It was wishy-washy. I couldn’t figure out if he was good at what he did or not, if he was a moron or a genius illusionist. This was a HUGE deal since the entire movie was about Oz and his journey. If we didn’t see a clear flaw in him that needed to be rectified, then we were watching a man for 120 minutes that we had no emotional attachment to.
The movie makes Oz’s character much clearer. He isn’t perfect, but for example, we know after those opening scenes that Oz is actually good at what he does – fooling people. There’s a great moment in his opening magic act where he’s doing the cliché “floating covered body” trick. Someone from the back of the crowd screams that they “spot a wire.” Indeed, we see wires clearly holding up the body. We think Oz is screwed. But then he whips out some scissors and cuts all the wires down. The body still floats! He planned for this, telling us that this guy is good at what he does, even if what he does is sleazy. That stuff was way too muddled in the script.
His flaw, it turns out (which is so much clearer in the movie), is that he’ll sacrifice anything or anyone for a woman or a piece of gold. He’s selfish. He’s all about himself. This is the defining characteristic that’s driving his inner journey.
We see this early on when he selfishly screws over a couple of women. And that turned out to be a smart move as it better sets up our anticipation of how he’s going to screw over Theodora. As she grows to love him on their initial journey to the Emerald City, it’s clear he only sees her as a one-night stand. We then feel that tension in their dialogue from his side. Their dialogue basically starts working from a dramatic irony standpoint. WE know he’s going to screw her over later. SHE does not. It was little things like this that I didn’t see in the script because the effort hadn’t yet been put into solidifying Oz’s flaw.
Once we get to Oz, I thought the film moved much better than the script. It looks like they really hammered out the plot points. In the script, it felt like we were stumbling around with no purpose. Here, it’s always made clear where we’re going and why. For example, Theodora needs to bring Oz back to the city so he can meet her sister and start preparing to take down the Wicked Witch. A clear goal! After they get to Oz, Evanora (Theodora’s sister) sends Oz to go kill the Wicked Witch. Again, a clear goal. Just the other day, we were discussing the sequencing method. This film/script is a good example of how to use that approach to keep a complex story focused.
Another thing they did a really good job with was the climax. Structuring an ending that big with that many characters is REALLY HARD. You have to figure out a believable way to get all of your characters exactly where they need to be at specific times. For example, they needed a way to have the witches capture Glinda so they could use her as bait against Oz, all while the main battle and several different subplots were going on. I thought the writers got through this section very smoothly, which is rarely the case.
But more importantly, I loved that OZ’S FLAW WAS DRIVING THE CLIMAX. This is something that wasn’t there in the script. Remember, we, the audience, care about the CHARACTERS FIRST. We have to want to follow them. We have to want to see them improve – get better – learn. The third act is the showcase act to do this. And when Franco used his specific skills to come up with a plan to defeat the witches, we were into it. And when he had a chance to leave (spoilers), we were hoping he wouldn’t go. And when he did, we were devastated. And when he came back, we were thrilled. None of that works without all that preparation that happened in the opening act establishing Oz’s character. And that stuff simply wasn’t there in the draft that I read. Which is why, while this battle is relatively the same as it was in the script, I cared much more in the movie. Because this time, I got to see the hero transforming.
Unfortunately, everything listed above only answers why the final script for Oz was better. It doesn’t explain the 53 million dollar difference in box office take on opening weekend between it and “Jack The Giant Slayer.” That’s what screenwriters have to study. That’s what they must understand.
I do think the pre-existing property helped. Who doesn’t know about “The Wizard of Oz?” So you have that going for you. But the big answer here actually lies in something determined by the screenwriter (as well as the director): Creativity. Imagination. When you watch the trailers of “Oz” and “Giant Slayer” back to back, you see more imagination in “Oz.” I’ll never forget one of the first pieces of advice an agent gave me when I arrived in LA. “These are tent pole movies. You gotta give the audience something they’ve never seen before.” Oz The Great and Powerful was giving us more stuff we hadn’t seen before. Jack the Giant Slayer, in retrospect, looked a bit familiar. It’s no different from how a movie like Alice In Wonderland (a dreadful execution of the story if there ever was one) made a billion dollars. It looked so damn imaginative. It gave you a ton of stuff you’d never seen before.
And it’s why a movie like The Lone Ranger should be worried that it might take in 50 million on its opening weekend as opposed to the 90 it wants. Do we see anything different, new, imaginative, original, in The Long Ranger trailers? I don’t think so. Maybe their future trailers will show that imagination and they’ll make a last second rally. But right now, it’s looking pretty standard.
I’m not going to say that Oz is a classic or anything ridiculous like that. But it was a fun movie that achieved exactly what it set out to do. It gave us a big world and a big story centered around a complex character who learned to be a better person by the end. That’s how you write a blockbuster, folks.
[ ] what the hell did I just watch? Kill me now.
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: In scenes/relationships driven by dramatic irony, you want to raise the stakes with the person not in on the secret. So once Oz spends the night with Theodora, she thinks they’re getting married, that they’re going to become king and queen. He, on the other hand, is thinking he’s going to ditch her once they get to the Emerald City. Notice, then, how the writers showcase how much Theodora likes him. She talks about how she can’t wait to rule with him, how much she likes him, etc. etc. With every stakes-raising declaration, the dramatic irony behind the dialogue becomes more and more intense (we’re thinking – oh my god, she’s going to be PISSED when she finds out he’s not interested in her).