Oz Reaps a Wizardly Weekend

Disney's prequel to the 1939 movie classic goes emerald, if not platinum

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People finally went back to the movies — or, rather, a movie. Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful earned $80.3 million at the North American box office, according to the preliminary estimate of its relieved sponsors at Disney. The 3-D, PG-rated prequel to the 1939 MGM classic musical The Wizard of Oz dominated the weekend, accounting for 58% of the total domestic revenue. The year’s first blockbuster provided a crucial infusion of cash after six weeks of lagging ticket sales, when Hollywood might have been offering customers root-canal surgery instead of big-screen entertainment.

[MONDAY UPDATE: According to final weekend figures released Monday, Oz the Great and Powerful actually earned $79.1 million — $1.2 million less than the total announced on Sunday, but still a fancy number. Jack the Giant Slayer came in at $9.8 million, about $200,000 under its preliminary tally. Bizarrely, seven of the eight other films in the top 10 exactly matched their Sunday predictions. Even Silver Linings Playbook, which The Weinstein Company has consistently overestimated, finished just $100,000 less than its forecast $3.7 million. Keep it up, studio swamis!]

Costing about $225 million to produce, and another $100 million or so to promote, Oz scored the fourth highest Jan.-Mar. opening in movie history, after The Hunger Games ($152.5 million last year), Disney’s Alice in Wonderland ($116.1 million in 2010) and The Passion of the Christ ($84.6 million in 2004) — though, in real dollars, the $70.9 million earned in 2007 by the Spartan epic 300 would be higher (about $83 million). The Oz numbers were also below the first-weekend grosses for any of the three Spider-Man films that Raimi directed: $114.8 for the 2002 original, $88.2 for the second chapter in 2004 and $151.1 million for the 2007 conclusion. Oz also cadged a sturdy $69.9 million from 46 overseas markets, for a worldwide weekend grab of $150.2 million. So the early results, if not quite great and powerful, are good and hopeful.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Oz the Great and Powerful)  

The studio’s interest in the books of L. Frank Baum dates back to the mid-1930s, when Walt Disney hoped to make an animated feature of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In 1985 the Mouse House produced a visually rich, emotionally dour sequel, Return to Oz, which never approached the Yellow Brick Road of profitability. The latest incarnation meant a big risk for Disney, especially after Robert Downey, Jr., and then Johnny Depp — bona-fide stars whose presence could have guaranteed a healthy box-office — dropped out of talks to play the Wizard. In the end, Raimi opted for Franco, who had played Peter Parker’s rival in the Spider-Man movies, and cast the roles of the Oz witches with a trio of art-house damsels: Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis.

(READ: Why Mila Kunis Is, Like, the Best Celebrity Interviewee Ever)

The demographic breakdown issued by Disney was broad and odd. As The Wrap reported: “Couples accounted for 43 percent of the audience, families 41 percent and teens 16.” Since those percentages add up to 100, we may assume that single people over the age of 20 bought exactly zero tickets. The Wrap also noted that of the 3,912 theaters playing Oz, “Around 3,055 of those screened it in 3D and … [t]heaters screening it in 3D provided 53 percent of the overall haul.” So 78% of theaters charged a 3-D premium, yet accounted for just over half of the weekend take? (What’s more likely is that multiplexes showed Oz in 3-D on some screens and in the old-fashioned flat format on others.) The solid but not sterling B-plus rating given to Oz in the CinemaScore poll of first-nighters suggests that the movie will be hard pressed to equal or top the $334.2-million domestic trove of Alice in Wonderland, let alone the $1.024 billion that the Depp film earned worldwide.

(READ: James Franco Is the 21st Century’s First Great Public Intellectual)

That the movie’s weekend figures were more than double the take of the year’s previous best opening (Identity Thief at $34.6 million four weeks ago) says less about the power of Oz than about the sorry state of the 2013 box office. January’s total theatrical gross of $319.9 million was the lowest since 2007; the Feb. total, $473.2 million, was the worst since 2002. The Oz opening helped total 2013 revenue inch past the billion-dollar mark, to $1.023 billion; but that number is far below the $1.516-billion gross in the same period of 2012, when business was booming, and $1.341 billion of 2010, when Alice and Avatar buoyed the numbers. Even the $1.156 billion tallied in the first 10 weeks of 2011 — when box-office income dipped below the poverty line and moguls were crying, “Recession!” — was 13% higher than this year.

(SEE: Rare photos from the 1939 The Wizard of Oz)

Want more bad news? The 2013 box office, such as it is, was stoked largely by movies released late last year. Of the nine films nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award, eight (Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained, Silver Linings Playbook, Les Misérables, Lincoln, Life of Pi, Argo and Amour) continued to play in theaters through the pre-Oscar season, and grossed a cumulative $467.2 million — nearly half of the 2013 revenue to date. In early 2012, the eight Best Picture finalists had earned just $186 million, or 12% of the total. That means that the new films of 2012 pulled in an impressive $1.33 billion, and the new films of 2013 a paltry $555.5 million. With the Oscar films nearly played out, Hollywood is going to have to produce new movies to attract an audience.

(READ: Why the 2013 Box Office Is So Blah)

This weekend, any film not named Oz could hardly muster a quorum. The dark thriller Dead Man Down, starring Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace, showed few signs of life: $5.35 million in a wide release. Emperor, a historical drama with Tommy Lee Jones as Gen. Douglas Mac Arthur, commandeered just over $1 million on 260 screens. The Mumblecore rom-com Somebody Out There Likes Me, starring Parks and Recreation dude Nick Offerman, did well ($38,495) at one Chicago theater. But the Cannes prize-winner Beyond the Hills, from the Romanian director of the acclaimed 2007 film 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, managed just $18,000 at three venues.

(READ: Mary Pols’ ecstatic review of Beyond the Hills)

The inhabitants of Oz aren’t the only ones in desperate need of benevolent sorcery. Somebody get Hollywood, and indie cinema too, a magic wand. The Wicked Witch of Audience Apathy has moviegoers under her spell.

Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. Oz the Great and Powerful, $80.3 million, first weekend
2. Jack the Giant Slayer, $10 million; $43.8 million, second week
3. Identity Thief, $6.3 million; $116.5 million, fifth week
4. Dead Man Down, $5.35 million, first weekend
5. Snitch, $5.1 million; $31.9 million, third week
6. 21 and Over, $5.1 million; $16.8 million, second week
7. Safe Haven, $3.8 million; $62.9 million, fourth week
8. Silver Linings Playbook, $3.7 million; $120.7 million, 17th week
9. Escape from Planet Earth, $3.2 million; $47.8 million, fourth week
10. The Last Exorcism Part II, $3.1 million; $12.1 million, second week