Tuesday, September 27, 2022

The Surprising State of Hollywood and Oz

 The latest bit of casting for the movie adaptation of Wicked is that Jonathan Bailey will be playing Fiyero in the two films.

 Bailey has been acting since he was seven years old on stage, film and television, most recently getting international attention in Netflix's hit show Bridgerton. He's experienced in musical theater, so if anything, he's overqualified for a major film adaptation of a Broadway musical hit.

There is one note about the role of Fiyero I want to presence. In Gregory Maguire's Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, the character is inspired by African tribes, described as having dark skin and tribal tattoos. In the original Broadway cast, Fiyero was played by a Caucasian actor, Norbert Leo Butz. The character's depiction was largely changed, making him a spoiled and self-absorbed member of a notable family in Oz.

To be fair to the musical, the character was played by men of color in different casts, notably Idina Menzel's then husband Taye Diggs. But still, largely, a role originally envisioned as a person of color was cast with a white person. While I've heard people dismiss the importance of the role, this is the very definition of what is called "whitewashing." I had hoped they might go with a person of color for the movie, but that's seemingly not going to be the case. It might not be as egregious as a culturally important character of color being whitewashed, but it's a missed opportunity, particularly as this two-part film adaptation might be the only version of the musical some people will get to see.

Before the Wicked movies come out, Universal, the studio behind them, might have even more importance to Oz fans.

Universal's TV arm is NBC, and they're both owned by Comcast, one of the big telecommunications companies in the United States. Without checking further credits, NBC/Universal control the rights to the movie adaptation of The Wiz, The Wiz Live! and the one-season TV series Emerald City. Universal is producing the Wicked films as they are a producer on the stage show, which for a movie studio, generally means that they get to make the movie adaptation. (It's not always the case, in fact Fox helped bankroll The Wiz but turned the movie rights over to Universal.) Universal Music Group, of course, released the original cast recording album for Wicked.

If you've been paying attention to elsewhere in Hollywood, you probably know about the shakeup over at Warner Brothers as they're merged with Discovery, cancelling movies and shows in various stages of production, pulling titles from HBO Max, which they plan to merge with the Discovery+ platform in time.

Warner Brothers had bought up and has basically absorbed Turner Entertainment, who had bought up MGM's catalog of movies, which included MGM's The Wizard of Oz. Under their ownership, Warner Brothers has only made a few spinoffs from the property, notably the two Tom and Jerry crossover movies and the animated series Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz. There have recently been two new film adaptations of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz announced from Warner Brothers, Nicole Cassell's film version with WB subsidiary New Line Cinema, and more recently, Kenya Barris writing and directing a new adaptation that's been buzzed as a remake/reimagining of the MGM film, set with Warner Brothers proper. There's also been an animated adaptation of Toto: The Dog-Gone Amazing Story of the Wizard of Oz announced, but it's been a long time since we've heard any news. Given the track record Warner Brothers has had, if any of these project are actually made, it'll be a surprise.

 So, why am I talking about Warner Brothers?

It's not publicly confirmed, and not expected to be as investors wouldn't want to hear this news, but the current state of Warner Brothers has been assessed by analysts as getting ready for yet another merger, expected to occur in the next couple of years. And who's most likely going to grab up WB?


Mergers haven't been great as this means redundancies and people lose jobs. In recent history, we have the merger of Disney and what was then 20th Century Fox to look back to. However, the changing landscape of the entertainment industry seems to be requiring consolidation as Warner Brothers is trying to eliminate a lot of debt. A little hint seems to be Disney poised to buy out Universal's shares of Hulu, which would help with clearing the merger as Universal would have less of a presence in the streaming market with just their platform Peacock, so buying up Warner Brothers/Discovery with their own services will be less of an issue.

But if this does happen, that would mean that before it goes public domain, the MGM film The Wizard of Oz will be controlled by Universal, the same studio who already has a handful of other notable Oz properties. It would likely be too late to affect production of the Wicked films so they could have visuals clearly meant to evoke the MGM film. It would also unite the Rankin-Bass catalog of Christmas specials which were split between the two studios, including The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, which Universal also distributes another animated adaptation of.

A big plus for theme park goers, however, could be the introduction of Oz properties to Universal's parks.A Warner Brothers park in Australia is going to be adding an Oz-themed area, but in major theme parks in the United States, Oz is absent. But with Universal also seemingly set to be finally losing their licenses to Marvel properties in parks and on screen, they will be needing to re-theme rides and attractions and there's always new attractions that get brought in. Could Oz help fill some gaps? We'll see.

As of yet, this is all speculation, but it's based on speculation by analysts in the industry. If this pans out, that means Universal will become a very important studio for Oz fans.

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