Disney set to capitalize on surprise hit TV movie, ‘High School Musical’

When Zac Efron wrapped filming on "High School Musical" last year, he never expected his lead role as a basketball star with a secret passion for singing would turn him into a national pin-up. Now the 18-year-old actor can barely walk down the street without being tailed and pawed by gaggles of screaming girls.


Since making its debut on Disney Channel in January, the made-for-television musical and its catchy soundtrack have whipped up a sensation among kids: They sing the songs, do all the moves and dream about being the teenage stars. "This is crazy," Mr. Efron says. "I never expected the movie to be this big."


Neither did the executives at the Walt Disney Co. Now they're scrambling to exploit every inch of the hot new property.


A sequel is already in the works. A DVD is lined up for release next week, with "sing-along" and "learn the moves" features. And a global roll-out starts next month. The TV movie will quickly go to Disney Channels and other outlets around the world. Meanwhile, Disney's movie studio is working on localized versions that will show in theaters in India and perhaps Latin America.


"We're writing the book for the first time," says Disney Channel Worldwide President Rich Ross, who is managing the franchise. "We've never had a TV product that's become this big a property so quickly."


The big question is whether "High School Musical" has the potential to be another across-the-board blockbuster such as Disney's "Toy Story." One thing is clear: Speed is critical. As with many hot properties that catch fire virally, Disney faces a delicate balancing act of striking while the iron is hot yet avoiding burnout.


Building franchises is what Disney does best. But "High School Musical" is following a pattern that Disney hasn't experienced before. First, it started life as a television movie, with a modest marketing budget (most of Disney's major franchises have come from the movie or consumer products divisions). Second, kids are using technology to spread the word and experience the movie in new ways: For example, a casual glance at youtube.com, the popular video-sharing site, reveals hundreds of kids re-enacting their favorite scenes at home using Web cams. The music also topped the charts at Apple Computer Inc.'s popular online iTunes store early on.


Seven-year-old Tabitha Brass originally spotted a promo for the movie on the Disney Channel and tuned in on Jan. 20. She was immediately hooked to the toe-tapping tunes and flashy routines directed by Kenny Ortega, the choreographer behind those steamy dance numbers in "Dirty Dancing."


The next day, she spread the word among friends at her Pasadena, Calif., school. Tabitha has since watched the movie at least four times and surfs the Disney Web site to get updates on her favorite character, Sharpay. She also bought a poster online and says she'll definitely watch the movie many more times on DVD.


It's not just young kids like Tabitha who have jumped on the "High School Musical" bandwagon. The lucrative tween market of 9- to 14-year-olds has embraced the movie even more aggressively. A dozen airings have drawn a total of 36.5 million viewers; 11.1 million of those are tweens and 10.3 million are 6 to 11.


In the movie, Mr. Efron's character, Troy, is a basketball star coached by his father at East High when he meets cute, brainy Gabrielle. Their budding romance and involvement in tryouts for the school musical and the problems that causes among the various cliques of nerds, jocks and drama geeks provides the tension in the plot.


When executive producer Bill Borden first developed the story, he had older teens in mind. His original idea was edgier, including more romance between the lead characters, who were older high schoolers. Inspired by his kids' love of musicals, he spent two years pitching that concept to movie studios as a feature film, but to no avail.


He ultimately found a home at the Disney Channel. But he had to make a few changes. First, Disney wanted to make a TV movie, not a feature. And they wanted younger characters, but not too young.


Tweens bought into that, but they're a fickle crowd. "They want something someone older could be into," says Tina Wells, CEO of Buzz Marketing Group, a youth marketing agency, "and 'High School Musical' does that."


Tween boys are even harder to navigate. Disney, whose ABC and ESPN networks televise National Basketball Association games, tapped a hoops theme to draw them in and worked with the NBA on projects like a video of the song "Get-cha Head in the Game," featuring players like Shaquille O'Neal.


Those initiatives helped drive the album to the top of the charts. The actors were hired as much for their singing talent as their acting (some of them may go on to sign deals with Disney's Hollywood Records). After recording the album, Disney tempted kids with the songs on Disneychannel.com. Mr. Borden notes that kids spend a lot of time instant messaging each other and downloading music, even while doing their homework. That means when they find something they like, word spreads quickly.


When the movie made its debut on Disney Channel, it zipped to the top of the cable ratings. Suddenly, other Disney divisions were calling Mr. Ross with ideas: The publishing team wanted to do a novel (released this week it's already a best-seller); the mobile phone group had an idea for ring-tones.


Two weeks after the premiere, Mr. Ross says they took a more organized approach. They went to each division to discuss how they could get involved. An obvious partner was the theatrical team. They immediately committed to creating a version schools could stage. Now they're working on a play and concert tour.


At the movie studio, executives agreed to make Disney's first foray into Bollywood. They reasoned that the only other country where bursting into song out of nowhere is a typical entertainment theme is India. The plan is to release a version in theaters, featuring local stars. The studio is considering local versions for Latin America and perhaps China and Japan.


The question is whether "High School Musical" will travel. Disney is preparing to roll out the U.S. TV version of the song-and-dance medley in more than 100 countries starting in June. The first stop is Australia. For non-English-speaking markets, the dialogue will be dubbed and the singing will be subtitled.


Mr. Ross says the movie hinges on themes that resonate in every country: It's about kids expressing themselves and recognizing diversity.


That doesn't mean they'll be using the same template in every country though. In India, for instance, the version being developed for theaters could be set in college against the backdrop of cricket. India will also get the U.S. television version with the songs dubbed by Bollywood stars.


At Disney's bi-monthly meetings to discuss its global franchises, "High School Musical" is now a permanent fixture. Mr. Ross cautions: "We have to be careful about not over-exploiting this. It's not about slapping 'High School Musical' on a T-shirt; that's the quickest way to kill a franchise."


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