'Oz's' Journey: 3 Studio Chiefs, Multi-Ethnic Munchkins, James Franco Scores $7 Million

 Douglas Inglish

THR pulls back the curtain on Disney's $200 million gamble to repave Hollywood's beloved yellow brick road.

This story first appeared in the March 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

For director Sam Raimi, casting the title character in Disney's Oz the Great and Powerful -- a prequel of sorts to The Wizard of Oz -- was almost as daunting as Dorothy's danger-filled original journey.

First, the famed director behind the Spider-Man and Evil Dead franchises wanted Robert Downey Jr., who had become a superstar thanks to the Sherlock Holmes and Iron Man series. Producer Joe Roth had been talking to Downey before Raimi even joined the project in summer 2010. But after an initial meeting between the director and star, things didn't look good. Months later, Raimi visited Downey at his Los Angeles home, still attempting to land him, but upon entering the house, Raimi spotted a plant that he had given the actor as a goodwill gesture wilting in a corner. (The filmmaker declines to elaborate.)

He then moved on to Johnny Depp, Disney's golden boy thanks to Alice in Wonderland and the Pirates of the Caribbean pictures. "As a 12th-hour effort, I dragged in Johnny and showed him everything," remembers Roth, who had produced Alice. "He loved it but said, 'I have a commitment to The Lone Ranger and am going to stick with that commitment.' "

PHOTOS: 'Oz the Great and Powerful': How Sam Raimi Brought the Legend Back to Life

Finally, just five months away from the July 2011 start of production, Raimi brought in James Franco (Harry Osborn in Raimi's Spider-Man films). "I met Sam to discuss this film around the Oscars two years ago," Franco recalls, adding he had read L. Frank Baum's Oz books when he was younger. "I was happy to do it, not only to work with Sam again but also because the character is so iconic."

Sources say Franco was able to command a $7 million payday due to the urgent need to land a star. He had entered negotiations before his ill-fated stint as co-host of the 83rd Academy Awards; Raimi claims the critical drubbing the actor received bothered neither him nor the studio. According to the director, Disney was "behind him from the moment his name came up and all through the project."

As it is, the spotlight on this $200 million picture -- the filmmaker's first in 3D, for which he attended a special, multi-day 3D "school" at Sony -- will shine on more than just its male lead. With additional marketing costs of up to $100 million, Disney's fable -- about how a huckster magician is swept away to the magical land of Oz, where he becomes its leader and the future Wizard -- is a significant test of the studio's power in an ever-shifting landscape. Pundits believe it could be either Disney's next Alice in Wonderland (with international grosses of $1 billion) or another John Carter (which resulted in a $200 million write-down and, arguably, the loss of then-studio chairman Rich Ross' job). Internet buzz has dogged the project, from the wisdom of casting Franco to what exactly happened during an eight-day reshoot last year, when insiders say a digital flying monkey named Finley was introduced and additional shots were staged to make Franco's character more sympathetic.

STORY: 'Oz' Premiere: James Franco Rides in Hot Air Balloon, Michelle Williams Parties With Busy Phillips

Hearteningly, a Feb. 13 premiere of Oz at Hollywood's El Capitan Theatre drew applause but didn't indicate how the PG-rated film will play with kids -- who were largely absent from the screening -- or whether Disney and Raimi have resolved a tug-of-war over just how frightening the movie should be. "It needed a little edge for the modern audience," he says. "I needed a darker color to contrast with the brighter ending."

On top of all that, Raimi's own yellow brick road has spanned three separate regimes at the studio: from that of Dick Cook, who commissioned the screenplay; to the one led by Ross, who greenlighted the film; to the current empire of Alan Horn, who has the task of supporting a film that had already wrapped when he was named studio chairman in May. (Not to mention that Disney's new head of worldwide marketing, Ricky Strauss, had taken over for former marketing chief MT Carney.)

Still, Disney production president Sean Bailey is upbeat. "James is a terrific actor," he says, "and what we looked at was the overall composition of the cast, which was very strong." With Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis as the three witches, "we felt we had a proposition that could appeal to a pretty broad section of the audience."

If he is right, the movie will, like Alice in Wonderland, result in sequels, a massive merchandising blitz (witch dolls are already on the assembly line) and a theme park ride that Roth estimates could cost $120 million or more. If he is wrong, Disney's detractors will whisper that maybe it's better off leaving the production of original content to its superstar divisions: Pixar, Marvel and now Lucasfilm.

PHOTOS: 'Oz: The Great and Powerful': James Franco, Mila Kunis Celebrate the Hollywood Premiere

The new vision of Oz began with screenwriter Mitchell Kapner (The Whole Nine Yards), who had long thought of writing an origin story about the Wizard.

"I had this idea years ago," he explains. "In meetings, people would say, 'Do you have a passion project?' And I'd tell them, and they'd go, 'See ya.' Then [the 2003 stage musical] Wicked came out, and I thought, 'I've missed the boat.' "

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