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The Disney star machine

tv Updated: Sep 20, 2010 18:53 IST
Highlight Story

Friday night’s premiere of Camp Rock Two: The Final Jam was a ratings boom for Disney Channel winning over 8.2 million viewers–the biggest cable movie release of 2010. And Demi Lovato, the star, was all smiles doing press.

In 2008, Camp Rock was written as a vehicle for the Jonas Brothers: Nick, Joe and Kevin, who were at the height of their musical careers (think Justin Bieber craziness), but it was Lovato, then 16 and a newcomer to the Disney talent stable, who was the breakout star. And so began her circuitous route to becoming a bona fide Disney Princess.

And these princesses are bringing in bank. According to the Forbes 2010 Celebrity 100 list, former Mouseketeer Britney Spears, No. 6 on the list, raked in $64 million from 2009-2010, work that included $130 million in gross concert ticket sales. Following in her footsteps, 17-year-old Miley Cyrus earned a reported $48 in the same year, landing her the No. 13 spot with box office gross of $1.2 million for her 57-city tour and lucrative merchandise deals with Disney. Not too shabby for the youngest woman on the list. In contrast, fellow Disney stars Nick, Joe and Kevin Jonas pulled in a collective paycheck of $35.5 million–placing them nearly halfway down the list at No. 40.

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So why is the Mouse House such a girls’ club? Sales figures aside, the very number of breakout stars from the Disney empire is incredibly lopsided: Britney, Christina, Hilary, Miley, Demi, Selena, Ashley and Vanessa are just a few of the names stacked against, well, mostly just against The Crowned Princes Jonas. For an answer, Marian Salzman, President of Euro RSCG Worldwide PR, says to look at the market.

Salzman’s marketing teams see the vast majority of the tween and teen marketplace being driven by girls, largely explaining the characters and products (are the two interchangeable?) coming out of the Disney assembly line of stardom. “If you look at the whole youth market, there just isn’t a male market out there,” she says. “The Disney marketing machine seems to work to mobilize young girls towards consumerism–which is a much tougher sell to boys who aren’t as in touch with their ‘shopping selves’ in the tween age group.”

It’s not to say that only female Disney stars have appeal, or even reach, Salzman notes, but the difference in marketability of male and female tween stars is really all about the audience. “Oh, the Jonas Brothers have reach, but it’s not aspirational in the way that the Miley Cyrus cast of characters is for young girls,” she says. “Nick Jonas may be the Miley Cyrus for guys, but it’s not the same. His fans are girls.”

Since the early crop of big names that were launched from The New Mickey Mouse club in the mid-90s, Disney has taken a new tack–and one that’s been wildly successful for its young talent. The new star-making assembly line starts with a teen with what Salzman calls the perfect recipe: “She’s a co-created winner. She’s got to have the talent, the desire for a certain kind of success. But she’s also got to have the right kind of parents. Everyone has to be on board.” Give the kid a sitcom and let her voice the theme song, making way for a pop career via Radio Disney, Disney’s web- and FM-radio arm, and if all goes according to plan, release a feature-length movie within the year.

“The make and model is the same from show to show, character to character,” says Michael Sands, a media image consultant who has worked with celebrities like Britney Spear’s ex-husband Kevin Federline. “They’ve assembled a fighter aircraft of marketable perfection.” Meanwhile, the marketing arm begins churning out all manner of branded products–clothing, books, makeup, the works. Camp Rock’s Demi Lovato’s story strayed from the formula in only one aspect. Rather than jump from a television show to an album and a movie, Demi began with Camp Rock, sang on its soundtrack, released her album and later was gifted a television show, Sonny With a Chance.

“They have the luxury of a cross-platform marketing machine,” says Sands, “but the linchpin is the television show.” David Schwab, vice president of Octagon First Call, a celebrity acquisition and activation firm, says that television is ground zero for all marketing to the Disney demographic. “While TV time is decreasing for older audiences with the rise of the internet, for Disney’s core young audience, it’s central to their media habits,” he says. “It’s where they get their biggest exposure.”

As an illustration, Schwab points out that Camp Rock Two, released September 3, has been watched “three times in its entirety” by his three children, all under seven years old. “They’re not into radio at a young age, and their Internet time is restricted or monitored by parents,” he says. “So for the five to 12-year- olds, television delivers the most lopsided percentage of their media messages.” And for Disney, it works, even after their stars–and audiences–grow up.

“The shows and the stars see continued success even after the series stop producing new episodes–or even when their audience outgrows it,” says Schwab. Every few years, new children (largely little girls) come into the Disney sweet-spot age group, and the company capitalizes by syndicating their old series. “The audience then increases in two ways for Disney and the star: young kids catch reruns for the first time and become fans, and the stars themselves move on to develop new properties and take their aging audience with them,” he says. Case in point: Miley Cyrus’s Hannah Montana may be in its final season, but her edgy line of clothing for Wal-Mart, Miley Cyrus & Max Azria, is selling alongside Disney-branded Hannah Montana merchandise in the mass retailer.

To be fair, it is possible for the money-making machine to come to a shrieking halt–if the star jumps the track or breaks from the Disney mold. One must only look to Lindsay Lohan, who made her name in 1998’s The Parent Trap at age 11 and whose image is now one Playboy cover shy of a Disney 180, to see that the reputation of a Disney Princess is not infallible. “Britney Spears has set the reputation back decades with her behavior,” points out Salzman, who recognizes that Disney cast members are held to a “higher quality of perfection” than typical celebrities, including sports stars and musicians, largely because of the age group they are marketed to and their positioning as role models. Still, while the Disney blessing is not a golden ticket, it’s at least a platinum hall pass. “When you put the Mouse ears on a girl,” Salzman concludes, “It’s a little like a Harvard acceptance. It’s certainly that much harder to fail.”

We’ll keep our eyes peeled for the pedigree of the Disney Princess in the year to come: we’re watching the newest star, Bridgit Mendler. Mendler, who bubbled to the top of the Disney talent pool after appearances on The Wizards of Waverly Place (with Selena Gomez), and her vehicle Good Luck Charlie debuted in April to 4.6 million viewers. Not surprisingly, the 17-year-old is the voice behind the show’s theme song and the Radio Disney rumor is that her album will drop within the year.