Posted: Fri., Oct. 3, 2008, 3:27pm PT

Hollywood in tune with teen musicals

'High School Musical,' 'Montana' inspire trend

By Tatiana Siegel

It's beginning to look a lot like the 1930s.

The economy is in the toilet, and Hollywood studios are filling their pipelines with upbeat dance films, particularly teen hoofers.

Has the ghost of Busby Berkeley infiltrated the high school cafeteria? Or is Hollywood hedging its bets by bringing modestly budgeted crowdpleasing films to an underserved teen girl market?

Disney, Columbia, Screen Gems, MGM and Paramount are among the studios prepping teen-dance musicals. The reasons are not surprising: YouTube and realityTV dance competitions have fueled enthusiasm and, starting with the 2001 "Save the Last Dance," the genre has a great track record at the box office.

However, the success extends beyond that. Aside from drawing record viewers on the Disney Channel, "Hight School Musical"and its sequel have sold nearly 15 million CDs, 50 million books, 4.8 million vidgames, and spawned stage shows, concerts and an ice tour. Disney expects $2.7 billion this year from "HSM" and "Hannah Montana" products.

Teens aren't the only ones tapping their toes. With the world reeling from the economic crisis and in the midst of 21st century angst, adults helped "Mamma Mia!" pass $500 million at the global box office, which gives hope to other studios and their upcoming tuners, such as the Weinstein Co. with "Nine."

But teens, and especially teen girls, are targeted with films that have relatively low negative costs, good grosses and a healthy afterlife.
This month, Disney will unspool the bigscreen "High School Musical 3: Senior Year," featuring the footwork and vocals of Zac Efron.

Paramount is on the verge of greenlighting a $35 million "Footloose" remake that reteams Efron with director Kenny Ortega, who helmed all three "HSM" chapters. The Melrose studio is aiming for a March start date.

The 1980 film "Fame" (which spawned a long-running '80s TV show and a stage version), is also being revived for the bigscreen by Lakeshore Entertainment and MGM. The contemporary-set tuner, being fully financed by Lakeshore, begins shooting in December in Los Angeles and New York.

Additionally, Disney is moving forward with "Step Up 3-D," the third installment of its hit dance franchise. The first two chapters grossed $65.3 million and $58 million, respectively, at a negative cost of less than $20 million apiece. Screen Gems is developing"Emme," a hip-hop reimaging of Jane Austen's 1816 novel "Emma" set in an inner-city high school. Columbia is putting together "A Cappella," a campus-set drama featuring song and dance, with Sam Weisman attached to direct.

"Dance movies come in cycles," says "Step Up" scribe Melissa Rosenberg who is a writer-producer on Showtime's "Dexter." " 'Step Up' did well, so the studios slam a bunch into production. And then if one doesn't do well, they will dry up."

When Rosenberg, a former dancer, began working in Hollywood in the early '90s, she longed to write a teen dance movie. But the industry suffered two notable flops -- 1992's "Newsies" and 1993's "Swing Kids" -- that put her plans on hold.

"I would get laughed out of the pitch meetings," recalls Rosenberg, who went on to hone her youth-centric storytelling skills as a writer on "The O.C." before landing the "Step Up" gig. (She also penned the upcoming teen vampire film "Twilight".)
Every major studio seems eager to get into business with Efron, who is nabbing a big payday for "Footloose." Par thinks Efron's star power, coupled with a well-conceived contemporary soundtrack, will help "Footloose" break out beyond the genre's typical audience of young girls.
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