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Toto recall

WB banks on 'Wiz' bang with broad release

Will families flock to the nearest megaplex to see the adventures of Dorothy and Toto this weekend? Or will they decide “there’s no place like home” when it comes to viewing “The Wizard of Oz”?

By releasing the restored 1939 MGM classic on close to 1,900 screens today, Warner Bros. is betting big that baby boomers and their kids will jump at the rare chance to see “Oz” on the bigscreen.

“This is the most popular family movie of all time,” Warner Bros. president of distribution Barry Reardon said. Reardon estimates that, when adjusted for inflation, the picture has grossed about $220 million over its lifetime.

But while the musical’s lasting appeal is undeniable, the question on many industry lips is whether auds will go out — and shell out — to see a film they can watch on TV for free, and which they probably already own on video. “Wizard” first appeared on television (CBS) in 1956 and aired a total of 38 times over the next 42 years. It concluded its most recent CBS run last May and will begin to appear on Ted Turner’s TBS Superstation beginning in November 1999.

Wide re-releases rare

With the exception of Disney animated features and the recent “Star Wars” trilogy reissue, re-releases of classic films typically open on less than 100 screens.

Reardon acknowledges the wide opening is a risk, but believes strongly that it will pay off. “There’s no comparison between seeing this movie on TV and seeing it in the theater.”

Others apparently agree. The media have lined up behind the reissue, which has been featured on talkshows and major print outlets. Advanced audience screenings have been hugely successful.

The picture’s $2 million restoration included digitally remastering the soundtrack, and cleaning up both the black-and-white and color sequences. (“Oz” originally cost about $2.7 million to produce, making it an extremely expensive movie for its time.)

Big bucks on TV ads

While Warners’ investment in the negative was relatively small, the studio is spending a substantial amount on TV spots to advertise the film to kids and parents. Distribution prints will add nearly $4 million to the release cost.

In order to break even on domestic theatrical revenue alone, the reissue will probably have to gross more than $30 million.

The last time it was reissued, in 1989, “The Wizard of Oz” grossed $612,300, according to ACNielsen EDI.

In fact, only nine reissues in the last eight years have grossed more than $25 million in North America. The “Star Wars” trilogy and Disney animation reissues accounted for eight of them. (Last year’s “Star Wars: Special Edition” was the highest grossing re-release ever, at $138.3 million.)

Paramount’s 20th anniversary release of “Grease,” earlier this year grossed $28. 4 million, and the recent reissue of “Gone With the Wind,” another wildly popular MGM classic, took in $6.7 million.

Of course, domestic theatrical ticket sales are only part of the potential revenue stream for “Oz.” The reissue is likely to spur video and DVD sales, and Warner Bros. will be marketing “Wizard of Oz” merchandise and T-shirts at its stores around Christmastime.

A market for ‘Oz’

The studio already knows there’s a market for it. Three weeks ago, home shopping channel QVC sold about $1.6 million worth of “Oz” paraphernalia in about two hours, according to Reardon.

“Oz’s” early November release date gives it two weeks to establish itself before a trio of high-profile kidpics — “The Rugrats Movie,” “Babe: A Pig in the City” and “A Bug’s Life” — open in close succession.

Still, “Oz” is bowing on one of the most crowded frames of the fall movie season. Weekend openings include Buena Vista’s highly anticipated Adam Sandler comedy “The Waterboy,” Fox’s “The Siege,” Artisan’s “Belly” and the 1,000-screen expansion of New Line’s “Living Out Loud.”

Reardon himself spearheaded the restoration of “The Wizard of Oz,” a labor of love that took about two years to complete.

“The minute we merged with Turner, I realized there were a couple of movies in the library that were really special,” the distribution veteran said.

In addition to “Oz” and “Gone with the Wind,” which sister company New Line released, Reardon said Warner Bros. hopes to reissue Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

But for Reardon, “Oz” is a horse of a different color. “Of all the things I’ve done, this is one of the things I’m most proud of. It’s just such a magnificent picture to see on the bigscreen.”