WHEN IT COMES to creating the Next Big Thing, Disney steadfastly sticks to its reliable synergistic playbook: Find a fresh face; plop her/him into a Disney Channel production; record an album for the Disney record label; play the heck out of said album on the Disney radio network, and presto, you've got a tween idol.
OK, so it's not quite that simple, but the Mouse Factory does seem to have this thing down to a science. From "Lizzie McGuire" (Hilary Duff) to "The Cheetah Girls" (Raven-Symone), "High School Musical" (Zac Efron and company) and "Hannah Montana" (Miley Cyrus), Disney is on a star-making, chart-topping, profit-building roll.
But it all starts with a commodity no factory can mass-produce: kids who possess raw talent and that certain special something.
"The primary challenge in all this is to find someone with warmth and relatability," says Adam Bonnett, senior vice president of original programming for the Disney Channel. "Someone our young fans see as a friend and can look up to."
Bonnett says Disney maintains relationships with talent agents all over the country. And when hunting for future stars, the company goes well beyond the borders of Hollywood, holding numerous open casting calls such as the recent one in San Francisco for a TV pilot.
Cyrus, for example, hails from Tennessee, and 15-year-old Selena Gomez, star of the new Disney Channel series "Wizards of Waverly Place," was discovered in Texas. In the Disney scheme of things, television is typically the launch pad. They look for cute, smart and high-energy kids who can deliver a line and get some laughs. Aspirants not only have to be dedicated and focused, but also have the kind of upbeat personality that doesn't stop shining after the cameras go off.
"It's not just being an actor. It's being part of this big Disney family," Bonnett says. "They go to charity events, make appearances at theme parks and do a lot of media. In bringing someone into this family, we have to really believe in them."
And through television, Disney stars can make an indelible impression on their young fans — an impression that often carries over into other platforms. "When you go to see Madonna or Jennifer Lopez in concert, you generally see them as performers," says Bonnett. "When the kids go to see Miley Cyrus, they not only see her as a performer but as a close friend, because she is someone who has come into their homes two or three times a week sometimes. It's like how you feel when you go to a child's play or recital. It's a different kind of connection."