Disney's Star Machine

Situated about an hour's drive north of Birmingham along I-65, Hartselle, Ala., is a postcard of small-town America. With a population just under 13,000, the community of mostly young families dotes on kids, outlaws liquor sales and honors its railroad roots with the Depot Days Festival on the last Saturday of each September. And when the town, which would make a perfect set for a Disney production, wanted to balance sports with a taste of theater, it turned to the Disney Channel movie "High School Musical." "It was the perfect vehicle for us to draw our athletically centered community into the arts," says Amy Golden, mother of Madeline, 14, and Olivia, 12, and codirector of the newly minted Camp Hartselle. During the four-day summer camp, held last month, 76 Hartselle kids rehearsed songs from the show and developed original skits inspired by the tale of the jock guy and the smart girl who defy stereotypes to audition for lead roles in the annual musical. A standing-room-only throng of 300 turned out for the big performance, held on the final day of camp. "The kids realized 'High School Musical' was about being open to new things. It was a very powerful message wrapped in bubblegum paper," says Lisa King, Camp Hartselle's other codirector and mother of two "HSM"-hooked tykes.

Six months after its premiere, "High School Musical" rolls on, a singing and dancing juggernaut. Almost 37 million viewers have watched the $4.2 million production at least once since its first airing, and the musical--a pop confection that makes "Grease" look like "Rebel Without a Cause"--surged back into the spotlight this month, grabbing six Emmy nominations. The soundtrack, a top-10 hit since its January release, is the year's biggest-selling CD, at 2.7 million copies. After five weeks, the DVD has sold an eye-popping 2.1 million copies.

And even as American parents and media execs scratch their heads over the rabid response to the raunch-free teenfest, "HSM" is spreading across the globe. Disney is exporting it to 100 nations. It premiered in the Asia-Pacific region last month, snaring record ratings in Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. The Edinburgh International Television Festival will show it in the city's Conference Square in August. It returns to American television this week, and the sequel is heading into production this fall. "HSM" 's hegemonic grip on high-school theater productions is assured for the next school year: when Disney posted word of the coming theatrical licenses, the Web site was flooded with 15,000 inquiries on the first day. A Broadway play is probable. Meanwhile, there are now two DVDs to watch over and over, two CDs to listen to repeatedly, ringtones to download, novels to read and stationery that's ideal for breathless fan mail to "HSM" cast members. Can you spell F-R-A-N-C-H-I-S-E? Analyst William Drewry of Credit Suisse estimates the fledging business already totals $100 million in CD and DVD sales. "It's unclear how big it can get," he says. "It deserves franchise status."

As only Disney can render it, "HSM" 's uncomplicated story has an uplifting moral--it's OK to be different, as the hit single "Breaking Free" assures. At East High, basketball captain Troy and brainy Gabriella discover a secret passion for music and audition for the school show. Their willingness to break the mold frustrates the reigning drama queen and king, Sharpay and her brother, Ryan, and turns the cliquish culture of high school topsy-turvy.

Behind the scenes, there's also the story of a mold-shattering corporate strategy. "HSM" is the latest and so far greatest product of Disney's star machine, which is actually a nifty reinvention of the Hollywood studio system of the 1940s, when powerful bosses locked up talent for years with onerous contracts and supervised every detail of their actors' lives. Disney mints child stars, carefully identifying and developing talented but largely unknown actors. Fresh-faced, with kid-next-door appeal, they are the anti Paris Hiltons. And because of Disney's meticulous attention to casting, its current stars are unlikely to morph into Britney "Oops I did it again" Spears, a onetime Mouseketeer. "They don't have to watch over me," says Ashley Tisdale, who plays Sharpay. "Disney knows who I am." She adds: "I'm not into the club scene. You won't see me go over the edgy edge. I will always be wholesome."

And there are plenty of Disney rewards for the chosen, not just a single role in a TV movie or series. Once they make it onto Disney's talent roster, they enter a candyland of synergistic opportunity, with spinoffs into feature films, live theater, recorded music, theme- park appearances and licensed merchandise. Disney's synergy czars already are blanketing their media kingdom with the ubiquitous faces and voices of the "HSM" stars.

But don't despair if the names Ashley Tisdale, Zac Efron, Vanessa Anne Hudgens, Lucas Grabeel and the rest mean nothing to you. If you're clueless about "HSM" you are probably childless or the parent or grandparent of grown-ups. "HSM" is clearly aimed at tweens--9- to 14-year-olds--and they are the turbopower behind its extraordinary success, each tuning in to the movie dozens of times and listening to the soundtrack incessantly.

Beyond the vagaries of plain dumb luck, you might wonder why "HSM" has become a pop-culture phenomenon. No single answer suffices. Certainly it's a solid piece of entertainment, created and marketed by top pros, with catchy songs, snappy choreography and cheery performances. Its appeal to tweens is innate, striking almost every psychographic chord manifest in the pimpled population, from adolescent angst about fitting in to a taste for airy, singalong pop music. "Wow, you can actually relate to the characters," says Patricia Kessanis, 14, of Wayne, N.J. "You have Sharpay, who's the snobby one but you can't help but love to hate. You've got Gabriella, the quiet one, the brainiac, the smart one. You've got Troy, the basketball player who falls in love with the brainiac."

"American Idol," the country's most popular TV show, also may be a factor. After all, the lead characters in "HSM" find themselves in the unlikely situation of auditioning for and winning the starring roles in East High School's annual musical production. "I think there's a symbiotic relation," says Bill Borden, "HSM" 's executive producer. " 'American Idol' has opened the door, in that anyone can succeed and become the next star."

More-complex social forces are at work as well. "HSM" is set in a fantasy world, which in its way is no more real than "The Little Mermaid." Sure, there are cliques and rivalries at East High, but there's no sex, no drugs, no racial or ethnic tensions, no dropouts and no violence. Everyone is good-looking, well-dressed and talented. Classrooms are spacious and clean. In the end, the home team wins, all conflicts are resolved and everybody dances together in the gym. It's not high school; it's high school the way we wish it could be.

The lustless love on display in "HSM"--there isn't a single kiss--thrusts the film squarely into the center of the ongoing culture wars over "decency" in radio and television, and at a particularly heated juncture. Just last month, President George W. Bush signed the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, hiking fines for violations to $350,000 each. But "HSM" is chaste almost to a fault--which is why it comes wholeheartedly recommended as Christian programming. Beliefnet, a religion and spirituality Web site, applauds "HSM" for not featuring "promiscuous greasers and accidental virgins." The musical has also earned the stamp of approval from Focus on the Family, which gauges entertainment for good and evil influences in an effort to foster spiritual growth. "No drugged-up kids cussin' and carousin' here," it said of "HSM." Costuming and dancing--"not Las Vegas sensual." But it frowned at the number "Bop to the Top," specifically the lyric "Shake some booty." At Ramona Convent Secondary School, a Roman Catholic high school for girls in Los Angeles, "HSM" has crept into religion class. Austyn Gabig, a 16-year-old junior, says a classmate recently led the mandatory daily prayer by playing "We're All in This Together" from the soundtrack. "When she played it on her iPod speakers, everyone sang the song," recalls Gabig. "It was cool. It's a positive song; the teacher didn't mind."

The stage was set for "HSM" a decade ago with Disney's hiring of Anne Sweeney. A former top exec at rival Nickelodeon, Sweeney was charged with remaking the Disney Channel, then a pay-TV service in 18 million homes. Aided by other recruits from Nickelodeon, including the Disney Channel's current top boss, Rich Ross, Sweeney sped up the network's switch to basic cable (87 million U.S. homes now), expanded worldwide, targeted tweens and programmed "kid-driven, family-friendly shows." "Parents can come into the room and not be embarrassed" by what the kids are watching, says Sweeney, now boss of Disney's overall television business, including Disney Channel and ABC.

Around 2001, the strategy began to take hold with a string of new series. Among them: "Even Stevens," "Kim Possible" and the flagship show "Lizzie McGuire," starring Hilary Duff. Later, "That's So Raven," starring Raven Symone, became the channel's highest-rated hit. The current lineup includes "Hannah Montana" and "The Suite Life of Zack & Cody."

But Disney also realized it was missing out on a big piece of the pie that was a natural for its audience. By airing concerts, it was helping launch music acts with no Disney affiliation, including Backstreet Boys and LeAnn Rimes, into superstardom. "People said, 'My God, look at all those stars'," recalls Disney Channel head Ross. Adds Gary Marsh, president of entertainment: "We decided to do music to serve our brands."

First up was Hilary Duff, whose debut release on Disney's Hollywood Records was in 2003. Disney began to weave music into its series. In 2003, it also aired "Cheetah Girls," a movie about four friends aspiring to music stardom and featuring Symone of "Raven." A ratings smash, it also yielded a Disney hit soundtrack album. "It was the first musical to break out," recalls Debra Martin Chase, the top producer of "Cheetah Girls" and its upcoming sequel. Marsh says it "told us we had a model that could really shine."

Enter Borden, executive producer of "HSM." "I wanted to make a movie that we could watch over and over as a family," says the father of three. "The nature of the characters is right out of mythological storytelling. It is classical 'Romeo and Juliet,' searching for one's identity ... cliques in society and how you have to behave." But because of "HSM" 's simple storyline and music, the movie ended up luring 4- and 5-year-olds, too, he says, adding, "The energy of the movie is so clean, simple and good."

So is the cast, which Disney introduced on a New Year's Eve special. Most weren't new to Disney. Vanessa Anne Hudgens (Gabriella) hailed from two Disney pilots, while Lucas Grabeel (Ryan Evans) was in Disney's 2004 TV movie "Halloweentown." Tisdale's a star of "The Suite Life of Zack & Cody." Disney Channel execs remembered Zac Efron, who plays Troy, from a Disney sitcom pilot. Still, they all had to audition. "Disney wants you to go get it," says Tisdale.

Disney also wants its stars to be embody its brand of family wholesomeness. To that end, it looks at more than how well a kid can perform. Casting is as much about personal character as it is about talent. All of this is unspoken; there's nothing in any contract about not staying out late on the Sunset Strip. "I don't want to be seen buying cigarettes and liquor," says Efron. "It wouldn't be a smart move to be out doing promiscuous things." For Disney, the key to keeping its kids tabloid-free is involving the parents. "I'm hiring the family," says Marsh. Literally, in some cases. Billy Ray Cyrus plays dad to his daughter Miley Cyrus in "Hannah Montana." And the upcoming Disney Channel movie "Jump" pairs Corbin Bleu (Chad in "HSM") and his dad, David, as father and son.

The synergistic spectacular that is "HSM" caps an equally spectacular rebound for Walt Disney Co. from the last tumultuous years of CEO Michael Eisner's reign. For now, it's Disney's world again. Under the low-key, but high-impact--so far, anyway--stewardship of Robert Iger, CEO since September, the company has emerged as the leader of Hollywood's digital age. After forging a groundbreaking deal to sell downloads of ABC shows for iPod, Iger next pulled off a bold acquisition of Pixar. And "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," its sequel to the 2003 surprise smash hit, sold $132 million in tickets on opening weekend, a record. In a note to clients last week, Goldman Sachs research analyst Anthony Noto estimated that "HSM" soundtrack sales plus "Pirates" box office could add the equivalent of an extra three cents a share to Disney's 2007 earnings. Disney had been playing to rave reviews overall on Wall Street, with its stock price up about 20 percent this year. Then last week reports surfaced about a looming and deep retrenchment in the movie division, and later Disney's stock shed some of its hefty gains after one Wall Street analyst surmised that the company can't possibly repeat this year's brilliant performance in its next fiscal year.

The "HSM" cast may beg to differ. They'll all return in full feuding form next summer for the sequel. East High is on summer hiatus, so the battleground shifts to the country club, founded by (who else?) Sharpay's granddad. Troy, Gabriella and the others show up as lifeguards, waiters and caddies. And the haves and the have-nots tee off in the club's annual midsummer night's musical. There'll be plenty of drama: this time around, Ryan may turn on his sis.

But will Troy finally get to kiss Gabriella?

CORRECTION: The name of the producer of "Cheetah Girls" was misstated ("Disney's Star Machine"). She is Debra Martin Chase.