Adults crowded the waiting room one recent winter day at Disney Channel’s headquarters. Some paced nervously around the couches and chairs, a few checked watches. There was little talk.
They were ready to audition for roles in this summer’s TV movie “High School Musical 2,” jobs that would make them instantly recognizable to millions of preteens.
Behind a wooden doorway, Disney Channel executives were working to keep the magic after launching one of the biggest entertainment phenomenons of 2006.
“We have seen clearly what our audience responds to,” said Gary Marsh, Disney Channel’s entertainment president. “The challenge is not to fall into the trap of taking the easy way out and making the same kind of thing.”
It’s not that people aren’t watching closely. When Disney posted 10 questions on its Web site last month asking fans to influence what was in the “High School Musical” sequel — things like choosing which dessert Zeke buys for Sharpay and which “Hannah Montana” star should appear in the movie — more than 27 million votes were cast in 20 days.
The success of “High School Musical” vaulted the Disney Channel into a tie with USA for top-rated cable network in prime time last year. The movie’s soundtrack sold nearly 4 million copies in the U.S. and was the year’s top-selling compact disc, even though you probably never heard songs like “We’re All in This Together” unless you were a kid around 12 years old or a parent of one.
The 8.2 million people who watched the premiere of “Jump In!” in January — starring “High School Musical” heartthrob Corbin Bleu as an aspiring jump rope champion — made it the top-rated TV movie premiere in the network’s history.
No wonder a framed picture of Marsh leaping gleefully into the air with the “High School Musical” cast is hung outside his office.
The Disney Channel’s success wasn’t sudden. It decided a decade ago to target ‘tweens, realizing TV offered little to them. It was like the musical gulf between Barney and Eminem, said Rich Ross, the network’s president.
Girls came first. Disney recognized that competitors Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network had stronger appeal to boys, and the snarky tone of some of their hits could be countered with something parents and their children were more comfortable with.
Through trial and error, including a failed mystery series, Disney determined that its audience preferred comedies to dramas.
“Kids are going through a lot today, maybe more than ever,” Ross said. “They want to smile and relax and laugh. Laughter is the antidote to a crazy world.”
Marsh believes there are five ingredients to a successful Disney Channel production. They should contain humor, optimism and depict real kids in real-life situations. They should tell an age-appropriate emotional story with situations preteens can relate to. And they should have navigational tools for life that kids can learn from, such as how to deal with a bully.
Many of the Disney shows are aspirational, like “Hannah Montana” and its depiction of a girl living the dream of being a pop star.
There’s almost always music in a Disney production, something the kids can sing along to — and buy with their allowance when they hear the songs again on Disney’s radio station — that won’t send their parents screaming from the room.
Think ‘Grease’ meets ‘Romeo & Juliet’
“High School Musical” squarely hit all of these targets.
Marsh had been looking to make a full-scale musical, and producer Bill Borden sold his straightforward pitch in a single meeting: think “Grease” meets “Romeo & Juliet,” with warring social cliques replacing warring families.
“It was so clear to me the simplicity of the story would stand up with the music,” Marsh said.
That story had school basketball star Troy meeting beautiful brain Gabriella on vacation, where they bond over their secret love for singing. When Gabriella transfers to Troy’s high school, they want to try out for the school musical together, but each of their friends try to keep them from crossing social barriers.
Marsh knew he was onto something when applause broke out after snippets of film were shown to staff members in development meetings.
While the story of competing cliques drew the most attention, Ross believes another aspect of “High School Musical” was just as important: the idea of Troy pushing back against his father’s expectations to forge his own path. That’s an equally important element of “Jump In!,” where Bleu’s character jumps rope despite his father pressuring him to be a boxer.
Disney also didn’t want to make Troy’s dad — the school basketball coach — seem evil or a silly caricature, Ross said.
“People get that parents want the best for their kid and it’s hard work, because it doesn’t always seem that way,” he said.
The sequel is sure to be a major part of many kids’ summers this year. Disney has kept the lid fairly tight on details; Marsh said that it will be set mostly in a country club and will explore different themes than the original, which was mainly concerned with the youngsters’ needs to express themselves.
“The reality is we have a very clear brand,” Marsh said. “The reason we have been successful is that we have been meticulous in reinforcing that in our content.”
Disney last month also successfully introduced a new series, “Cory in the House,” a spinoff of “That’s So Raven” about a teen-ager who moves into the White House. Along with Bleu’s casting in “Jump In!,” the use of familiar faces represents the delicate balance Disney must seek between building on its success yet also building something new.
Marsh is very much aware of the challenge.