This fall, kidvid producers will be watching to see if the Wizard of Oz is still "a whiz of a wiz." Two animated series based on the L. Frank Baum stories are scheduled to premiere next season.
Joseph Barbera recently announced that Hanna-Barbera Productions has purchased the animation rights to the 34 copyrighted books and all 630 characters in the "Oz" series. He plans to develop the stories into an animated series, tentatively slated for CBS's Saturday morning lineup.
At about the same time, Herman Rush, chief executive officer of Coca-Cola Telecommunications (a unit of Coca-Cola Television) revealed that his company is completing 52 half-hour episodes based on the first six "Oz" books for first-run syndication. Rush predicts that this series, animated in Canada by Cinar Films, will reach "80% of the TV households in America." Some of the episodes will be recut into four feature-length movies.
The first book, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," was published in 1900. Baum wrote 13 more "Oz" books, and other authors contributed an additional 26 volumes of stories after his death.
The first six books, from "The Wonderful Wizard" through "The Emerald City of Oz," are now in public domain. Hanna-Barbera purchased the rights to the remaining 34, beginning with "The Patchwork Girl of Oz," from the Baum estate.
Under this arrangement, other producers can make films based on the first books, but cannot go outside the confines of the original stories; Hanna-Barbera can develop the characters and expand or alter the stories as they choose.
"We did a presentation based on the books over 10 years ago," says Barbera. "There was quite a rigmarole over the rights--Disney had them at that point. We tried again, five years later, with a whole new concept for a feature. The lawyers got nervous again, and we backed off.
"Meanwhile, Disney did its own feature ("Return to Oz," 1985), then dropped the rights. We picked them up. No one else can do any more than stay within the books in public domain, which is not the heart of Baum's material."
Asked about a possible conflict between the two series, Rush replied, "I think the best and strongest series will survive. Hanna-Barbera has talented, bright people, and we're happy to hear they're on the same track as we are: That's flattery."
Unlike the controversy surrounding the two versions of "Ghostbusters" currently on the air, it apparently is coincidence that the two studios are simultaneously developing the "Oz" material.
"The 'Oz' books are classics--an internationally pre-sold property," Rush says. "Also, there's a great deal of violent material out there. I think there's a general trend among producers, distributors and networks to find less violent material to balance their schedules, so the property lends itself to successful release. Our series will be simultaneously issued on video cassette by RCA/Columbia: We feel there's a cross-promotion between video stores and telecasts that can add to the success."
Since the books were first published, there have been literally dozens of plays, musicals and films based on the "Oz" series. But for most Americans, the 1939 MGM film (coming up for its 29th showing on network television March 6 on CBS) offered the definitive versions of Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Woodman. The animated programs have a hard act to follow.
"I don't care about the comparisons," declares Rush. "Any time comparisons are made, you have to have apples and apples, not apples and oranges: How can you compare animation to live action?"
"We've been in close contact with MGM," says Barbera. "We're trying to get the rights to the theme song. They're hesitant because of its status as a classic, which I understand. I'm quite sure our Lion and Tin Man won't infringe on theirs. When you do another version in live action, as Disney did, you invite the comparison. As we'll be using animation, I believe the comparisons won't be that obvious."
Probably everyone would agree that "Oz, the great and powerful," is a mighty wizard, but whether "the wonderful things he does" extend to earning Nielsen ratings remains to be seen.