Marketing magic

By SHARON STEEL  |  August 15, 2007

In the studio system that dominated Hollywood until the late 1940s, five major studios existed as fully integrated conglomerates. They placed their stable of performers under contracts, and many found it necessary to micromanage and maintain the image and life of their talent. Those practices were abandoned in the 1950s after a federal antitrust suit, though Disney appears to have taken a page out of the old-Hollywood playbook. The company’s meticulously crafted denials about the manageability of their living, breathing stars are especially disturbing, however, in light of recent events. As of this past week, Spears is in danger of losing custody of her two sons as a result of her erratic public behavior. Lindsay Lohan’s (her last Disney film, Herbie: Fully Loaded, came out in 2005) own mother can’t keep her mouth shut about her daughter’s rehab program. And a Maxim photo shoot with Hilary Duff (a/k/a Disney’s Lizzie McGuire) is already old news.

Say you pull Beauty and the Beast out of your personal Disney vault and spend an afternoon re-immersing yourself in the French fairy tale. You’d never catch Belle and her Beast going at it during one of their lovestruck duets, right? (“Parental discretion is advised” isn’t exactly part of the Disney vernacular.) But what about the actors playing the HSM kids — namely, Efron and Hudgens, who finally ’fessed up about being an off-screen couple?

Not quite yet, though Efron seems to have broken out of an excessively earnest mold, as have most Disney idols. Nobody wants to predict the day of their own death, but some stars do plan the sort of antics that release them from Disney’s stifling embrace. He’s not going to be in the mainstream public eye for long without some kind of discrediting humiliation inked on his report card. The pretty, raven-haired Hudgens also appears as though she’s never so much as uttered a curse word, which could suggest one of two things: a) she stays a Disney darling until some rock critic insults her music for being too vapid (see: Duff), or b) somewhere around the making of HSM 3, she gets photographed stumbling out of club Hyde at 2 am, spitting on the paparazzi, and passing out in the back seat of her car. A DUI and some coke-induced misadventures are, shall we say, optional.

“Oh,” Disney execs must weep quietly to themselves, “wouldn’t it be so much easier if — like Mickey, Donald, and Goofy — our human stars could lay quietly on a collectible cel when the cameras are turned off?”

But the Disnoids troupe only seems to be able to tow the line for so long. For now, Hudgens demurely sports a promise ring Efron gave her instead of flashing her panty-less cha-cha for TMZ. At the end of HSM, she and her boy-toy don’t even get to first base.

Disney Channel’s Healy says that the reason kids have connected so well with HSM has to do with the fact that “this was a musical in which the kids were real leads — it wasn’t like Grease, where there were older people playing kids. But this was kids in real high-school settings, and I think it really struck a nerve with our audience.”

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