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Hoping to recapture youth with 'High School Musical 2'

Disney is banking on the young audience of its TV hit to tune in for the sequel Friday. This time, it plans a global merchandising blitz.

August 16, 2007|Dawn C. Chmielewski | Times Staff Writer

"High School Musical" graduates to full-fledged franchise status for Walt Disney Co. with this week's premiere of the sequel.

The Friday showing of the Disney Channel's "High School Musical 2" initiates a fresh round of CDs, DVDs, merchandise and live performances. Through 2007, the two television movies are expected to generate about $100 million in cumulative operating profit for the company.

In the words of heartthrob Zac Efron's character, star athlete Troy Bolton, it should easily "make bank."

Bill Carroll, an analyst with Katz Television Group, a media buying and consulting firm in New York, said "High School Musical" was as hot a property as existed now in television.

"The expectations are so high, there may be some disappointment," Carroll said. "But realistically, that audience is just thrilled to have a new version."

Still, the staying power of what has become one of the Burbank company's most valuable properties will be tested.

"High School Musical 2" faces the same hurdles as any film series -- trying to recapture the chemistry that made the original so endearing to its young audience, while keeping the creative team intact and fully engaged over the life of the franchise.

Then there's the Disney Channel's fan base.

"That teenage audience is extremely fickle," said veteran media analyst Larry Gerbrandt. "And they also have this nasty habit of growing up. You have to be able to keep drawing in a younger audience."

Originally a low-budget sleeper, "High School Musical" became a pop-culture phenomenon, attracting 160 million viewers worldwide who tuned in to watch the interpersonal dramas at fictional East High School.

It also produced the top-selling album of 2006, a bestselling novel and a 42-date sold-out concert tour in North America and a subsequent five-country sweep through Latin America.

The movie's success also gave a broader boost to the Disney Channel. Derek Baine, an entertainment analyst with SNL Kagan, said "High School Musical" spurred a jump in revenue from sponsorships and DVD sales to $72 million last year, compared with about $15 million to $20 million annually through 2005.

Rich Ross, president of Disney Channel Worldwide, said one key to the success of any sequel was its ability to bring back the original cast and creative talent, as "High School Musical 2" has done by retaining director and choreographer Kenny Ortega and the lead actors.

The chemistry between the lead actors and Ortega "was certainly the magic," Ross said. "Then, we had to allow it to breathe. We had to be able to tell a new story. We had to create a bigger world that allowed it to expand."

The bigger effort also came with a bigger price tag. "High School Musical 2" cost about $7 million, compared with $4.2 million for the original. Still, by Hollywood standards that's relatively cheap.

If the popularity of the original caught some executives by surprise, this time Disney will leave no merchandising stone unturned. Nearly every division of the entertainment giant will tap into the "High School Musical" phenomenon, including Disneyland Resort, which Tuesday hosted the red carpet premiere at Downtown Disney in Anaheim.

Music once again serves as a launching pad to build anticipation for the musical.

Walt Disney Records already has released the soundtrack's first single and music video, "What Time Is It?" an upbeat summer anthem that has gotten an airplay boost from Radio Disney. SoundScan said the song debuted at No. 1. The full soundtrack went on sale Tuesday.

Once the movie airs on the Disney Channel, it will be broadcast in 100 countries.

Ross said some were initially skeptical of his plans to take "High School Musical" to a global television audience.

"People pretty much thought I was crazy," Ross said. "I've been in rooms from Shanghai to Moscow to Buenos Aires and people say, well, 'This is American.' "

Ross said he was quick to point out the similarities in the lives of teens worldwide, who are dealing with the same school and social pressures and aspirations.

Those instincts proved on target, as Disney said the premiere telecast of the original "High School Musical" was No. 1 in its time slot in 16 worldwide markets as diverse as Chile, Norway and Taiwan. The soundtrack album sold more than 1 million copies in countries including Argentina and New Zealand.

In the U.S., the Disney Channel's launch of "High School Musical 2" kicks off a new round of merchandising and live performances.

"High School Musical: The Ice Tour" hits the rink in September, with three global touring companies. And some 2,000 high schools and community theaters will have staged adaptations of "High School Musical" by the end of the year, even as Disney Theatrical Productions sends a professional touring company through North America. The studio is also contemplating a big-screen version of "High School Musical."

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