IS he the next John Travolta or Johnny Depp, or just another teenage fad, as ephemeral as Hula-Hoops, "Scream," "Dawson's Creek" and Leif Garrett? That's the billion-dollar question hanging over 19-year-old Zac Efron, the pimple-free star of Disney's "High School Musical" juggernaut.
Hollywood woke up this past week with a case of whiplash. Sure, everyone with a child -- particularly a girl child -- has had some awareness of High School Musical Mania, generally lumping it in with Hannah Montana-mania, Cheetah Girls-mania, Webkinz-mania, tween phenomenons that have evoked passionate devotion among their followers. For grown-ups and groovsters, those fads exist in an alternate pop-culture universe, profitable for sure but without the global panache of more muscular, older-skewing brands like "Spider-Man" and "Harry Potter." But the sheer numbers of "High School Musical 2's" opening weekend audience -- $33 million -- has reverberated around town . . . aahhh, if only each of those viewers were paying $10 apiece. And then there are the 5 million or so audience members who've tuned into the first "High School Musical" every one of the 24 times it's aired on the Disney Channel.
For better of worse, Efron, he of the swivel hips and evaporating eyebrows, is the breakout star. The guy who just a few weeks ago wouldn't be on any casting director's short list has suddenly zoomed into the rarefied climes of Emile Hirsch and James McAvoy, right behind the king of the 20-year-old set, Shia LaBeouf, star of "Transformers" and Spielberg's designated It boy. LaBeouf's asking price is already in the range of $8 million to $10 million. An eclectic cross-section of Hollywood insiders think Efron should get a cool $5 million for "High School Musical 3," the theatrical version of the franchise, which Disney is hoping to make pre-strike -- i.e. in the next nine months, before a possible Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild strike shuts down Hollywood.
Efron declined to comment for this article, and although contract negotiations are still ongoing, sources say Efron is being offered a salary closer to $3 million, not $5 million, for the follow-up, which focuses on senior year at East High. Whatever the price, he's still perceived as a steal. "Because without him, they don't have a movie," says one top talent agent who doesn't work at CAA, home to Efron's management team. "He's the reason why they're going to sell tickets for the opening weekend. That's a bargain even at $5 million, just for DVD sales alone. Plus they owe it to him."
"Zac was generally the star of 'High School Musical 2.' He drove the story, and he clearly drove the movie alongside Ashley [Tisdale] and Vanessa [Hudgens]. He's the BMOC. If there is a first among equals, I would say that Zac would be that," says Richard Ross, president of the Disney Channel, though he adds, "It's very much an ensemble. Zac would be the first to say it himself. One of the magical factors is that there is a tremendous relationship among the cast that developed on the first movie and was maintained on the second."
Ross declines to elaborate on the development of the new movie, except to say, "I can't imagine that Zac would not be a prominent part of it. I can certainly say on my own behalf, I'd love to have him on board and headlining."
Efron, who has a stack of offers on the table, is also slated to do the comedy "Seventeen," for New Line, a kind of spin on "Big" or "Back to the Future," in which a 38-year-old becomes young again and attends his school -- with his own children. "Hairspray" director Adam Shankman, who's producing, developed it specifically for him, and Efron's salary, according to one studio source, is slightly less than $1 million.
He's also attached to the remake of "Footloose," which in its previous incarnation featured Kevin Bacon. Another project chasing him is "Bridge and Tunnel," written by Greg Berlanti and to be produced by Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal.
According to sources, Efron received only about $100,000 for his role as teen idol Link Larkin in "Hairspray," and director Shankman, now his biggest booster, didn't even know who Efron was when he auditioned last February.
"He came in flip-flops and Bobby Sherman hair. He smiled and did his audition. I smiled and said, 'Eh, forget it.' My sister [Jennifer Gibgot], who's my producing partner, called me and said, 'Are you out of your mind? He's going to be the biggest TV star.' She read me the numbers and said, 'I want you to go to the magazine rack. I saw him literally on the cover of every single young magazine.' She said, 'You get him back in here. You make him good, and you must put him in the movie.'
"I brought him back and worked with him," Shankman says. The director told Efron that his smile was "too sweet and soft" and said, "Stop smiling. Give me smoke in the eyes."