Sooner or later everybody has to leave home — even if home is a castle sparkling with pixie dust. Last month, Disney’s biggest stars, Miley Cyrus and Zac Efron, showed signs that they could survive outside of the Magic Kingdom. First came Cyrus’ Hannah Montana movie, in which the Miley character forsook the Hannah wig to learn to be simply…herself. The film topped the box office with a $32.3 million opening weekend. A week later, Zac Efron hit No. 1 with an entirely Disney-free enterprise, 17 Again. Efron even teased his former bosses in a Saturday Night Live skit in which he played High School Musical’s Troy Bolton, returning to East High to warn his former classmates that in the real world basketball teams generally do not start singing for no reason.
For three years now, the Disney Channel has groomed Cyrus and Efron as carefully as Geppetto once carved a puppet out of wood. ”It’s almost like the old studio system, where they own you,” says agent Cindy Osbrink, who handles Dakota Fanning, as well as Disney kid Kyle Massey (Cory in the House). ”There are feature films and recording contracts. It’s all or nothing.” But, she adds, ”it’s not a bad thing. They take care of the kids very well.” For years, the relationships have definitely been win-win. Along with the Jonas Brothers (whose Disney sitcom debuted May 2), Cyrus and Efron have been part of a generation that’s dominated the pop culture landscape. But now Efron has parted ways with Disney — there’s an HSM 4 in the works with a new cast — and Cyrus has just one season left on her contract. (Both declined to comment.) Someday even the Jonas Brothers are going to start looking manly. So what happens when Pinocchio becomes a real boy? What happens when a princess wants to rule her own kingdom — or even just hit a club in peace? The upside for Disney is that once a teen star moves on, the company no longer has to answer for every saucy leaked photo and tabloid scandal. On the other hand, Disney and this generation have made beautiful money together. Breaking up is hard to do.
Disney has been a golden ticket for many a child performer, from the original Mickey Mouse Club in the 1950s to the fame factory MMC of the ’90s to the TV/music/movie stars of today. (And yes, being all three is usually part of the deal.) But the company didn’t truly figure out how to cash in on its stars — and how to hang on to them a little longer — until recently. Disney watched a host of golden geese fly the coop in the ’90s after discovering the likes of Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Christina Aguilera. In 2003, Hilary Duff famously walked away from a multimillion-dollar offer to stick with her Lizzie McGuire franchise through a movie sequel and ABC series.
By the time Cyrus showed up in 2006, the company finally seemed to have it down: Multiplatform synergy and package deals were the key. The Disney Channel’s business was no longer mere television-making — it was star-building. Disney had so much success with the formula that Hollywood has morphed just to keep up, with agencies like William Morris hiring kid-star experts and starting specialized divisions. Mainstream media went from virtually ignoring kiddie programming to breathlessly charting its stars’ every move. ”Everybody wants a piece of it,” says agent Bonnie Liedtke, William Morris’ tween titan. ”It’s changed so much. I’ll talk to filmmakers who will say, ‘I’m looking for the next High School Musical.’ That just wasn’t a reality four or five years ago.” And, of course, the kids have changed too — arriving at Disney with entourages of agents, managers, and publicists. ”They all want to do whatever it takes to be stars,” says an industry insider who’s worked with kids for many years.
As a result, sometimes Disney’s own star-building has gotten the better of it. A few years back, leading man Efron blew off the HSM concert tour to star in the hit movie musical Hairspray. Publicly, Disney chalked it up to an unfortunate scheduling conflict. Efron, though, quipped to Rolling Stone, ”If I had to hear the High School Musical songs anymore, I probably would have jumped off something very tall.” Today, Disney execs say it’s a problem they’re happy to have. ”These kids lead busy lives, and we’re conscious that people seek opportunities to grow,” says Rich Ross, president of Disney Channels Worldwide. ”I’m never more thrilled than to see [Efron] getting off a plane in Paris or Rome, whether he’s supporting one of our movies or someone else’s.”