'Lizzie,' hit films ride on TV teens
By Claudia Puig
|Hilary Duff gets a lift from Yani Gellman in "The Lizzie McGuire Movie."
Translated: The Disney Channel's top-rated series, "Lizzie McGuire," has been made into a movie that hit theaters nationwide Friday.
Banking on the 2 million viewers "Lizzie" draws each week on TV, the popularity of bubbly star Hilary Duff and endless promotion of the film on the Disney Channel, analysts expect to see $15 million to $20 million for its first weekend, an achievement considering the expected smash "X2: X-Men United" also hit theaters.
As an indication of the faith filmmakers have in Duff's appeal, she's already working with Steve Martin on a "Cheaper by the Dozen" remake the part was written especially for her and will be paid $2 million for "The Cinderella Story."
Never has kids' cable TV seemed as much of a springboard to a marquee-level movie career as it has this year:
- "Holes," starring Disney Channel's Shia LaBeouf ("Even Stevens"), has grossed $36.8 million in two weeks.
- "What a Girl Wants," starring Nickel-Êodeon star Amanda Bynes ("All That"), has made $33 million since April.
- "Agent Cody Banks," starring Duff and Frankie Muniz ("Malcolm in the Middle"), has taken in $46.3 million since March, and a sequel is in the works.
"You don't need a casting director, you just need a television set," says Rich Ross, president of entertainment at Disney Channel. "The movie stars of tomorrow are on TV tonight."
Though filmmakers drawing young actors from television is not new (remember Disney's 1950s "Mickey Mouse Club" star Annette Funicello?), today's trend is about combining already existing fan bases, a TV testing ground and multiple marketing outlets.
Kid-oriented live-action movies are also generally cheaper than animated fare, and "Hollywood studios want to reduce risk as much as possible," says Gitesh Pandya, editor of boxofficeguru.com. "These kids have huge built-in audiences, and you don't get many slam-dunks in the movie business."
Members of the 78.2 million-strong, 21-and-younger baby boomlet generation "go to the movies more than anyone," Pandya says. "Until that changes, that's where the green is and that's where the content is."
Corporate synergy plays a key part in the machinery of turning TV teens into movie stars. The WB, where Bynes stars in "What I Like About You," is a sister company to Warner Bros., the studio that produced Bynes' movie. Walt Disney Pictures, the Disney Channel and ABC are all owned by the same company.
Disney has great expectations for Duff. "When we previewed 'The Lizzie McGuire Movie' recently, the title came up and people started to cheer, and you'd think we were sitting in 'Star Wars,' " says Nina Jacobson, Disney's president of production.
It shouldn't have been a surprise: Duff's made-for-cable movie "Cadet Kelly" drew the Disney Channel's largest audience ever last year.
Beyond Duff and LaBeouf, four other popular Disney Channel teens are being groomed for big-screen stardom: Raven-Symone, 17, and Orlando Brown, 15, (both of "That's So Raven"); Kyla Pratt ("One on One"), 16 ; and Christy Romano ("Even Stevens"), 19.
"We don't have a set agenda of 'Thou must make Disney Channel stars into movie stars,' " says Jacobson. "But far be it for me to look a gift horse in the mouth. If I have a piece of material that's right for one of them, and I can count on their audience to come to my movie, I'll take it."
Disney provides dialect coaches plus dancing and singing lessons to help its stars. Often the test before launching them on the path to big-screen stardom is seeing how they fare in a TV movie, so Disney will create vehicles like "Cadet Kelly" for Duff or "Tru Confessions" for LaBeouf to see how the audience responds.
How easy is it to shape teens into movie stars?
It requires "patience, patience, patience," Ross says. "You make sure the kids are educated to the best of their ability and you're respectful of the kids and their families. Then you give them a range of opportunity."
The star's fan base is critical. "You want to continue the connection and the relationship," says Jacobson.
Could movie-stardom expectations backfire on these young actors? Tales of former child actors who became famous and couldn't handle it are legion.
Those who work with these young actors are acutely aware of the pitfalls and work to avoid them.
"It really goes back to the parents," says Ross. "Hilary is working very hard with her mom to pick appropriate roles. If the parents stay involved and the kids are comfortable (with acting), then they choose vehicles that are appropriate."
The stars are mindful of not offending fans.
"I come from Nickelodeon, which I'm really grateful for now," says Bynes, 17. "Because people grew up on that. A lot of the people who watch me are quite a bit younger than I am. It's hard because you don't want to be perceived as a little girl, but there is also a part of me that doesn't want to say bad words."
Duff, 15, says her career role model is Sandra Bullock. "I'm very comfortable in the role of Lizzie McGuire," she says. "It got me where I am. It's not something I'm dying to get out of."
LaBeouf prefers an edgier career path.
"Hilary could decide to stay there, as Lizzie, or she can do other things," he says. "It's all about where you want to go. Not everybody wants to go and see 'The Pianist.' Some want to see 'Legally Blonde.' "
LaBeouf prefers "The Pianist." For his next role, in Fox Searchlight's "Eyes on the Street," he'll gain 20 pounds to play a street thug.
Duff is no less determined, but she's taking a more conservative route. "I do want to show people
I can do more than just be Lizzie McGuire," she says. "But that Êdoesn't mean you have to be edgy. I don't have to play a pregnant mother on crack. You can play a dramatic role without being too edgy."