With a cast of talented unknown teens weathering flu symptoms, relying on the support of Ace bandages, enduring long hours of rehearsals, and asking the director to "work us harder" in preparation for a Disney Channel production, Kenny Ortega knew he had a special project on his hands.
But the award-winning filmmaker and choreographer didn't realize the TV movie's demographic-busting ability until he received an e-mail from actress Kathy Najimi, whom Mr. Ortega directed in the feature film Hocus Pocus.
"She e-mailed me asking, 'Why is my daughter watching this for the fifth time this week?'" Mr. Ortega says with a laugh. "And, later, she asked, 'Why is our whole family watching it and why do we all know the lyrics to all the songs?'
"It's not just kids who are watching it. My grown-up friends are telling me they're enjoying it, too, as they watch it as a family. It's a real thrill knowing we've created family entertainment. It's bringing families together."
He's referring to the runaway hit High School Musical, a Disney Channel movie that captured the imagination of children by the millions and won the approval of parents with the buying power to make it the dominant force in entertainment this year. And it's made Mr. Ortega perhaps the breakout Hispanic in the entertainment industry this year, and one of the dominant forces in the entertainment world regardless of ethnicity.
High School Musical, a 90-minute musical comedy, follows the quests of two students who dare to break away from their stereotypical cliques and perform in the school's big theater production. A budding romance and spontaneous singing numbers ensue, giving the project a West Side Story flair in a modern-day Grease setting.
Disney Channel aired High School Musical 14 times between its January 20 debut and August 24. It reached 40 million unduplicated viewers in 21 million U.S. households, including 11 million youths ages 6-11 and 11.6 million tweens (ages 9-14).
The accompanying soundtrack topped the Billboard Top 200 chart twice in March and has since been certified triple-platinum (3.5 million copies sold). The album, which contains six gold-certified singles, is also the top-selling soundtrack, the No. 1 Kids' album year to date, and boosted Disney's revenues.
In July, Disney reported that its third-quarter music distribution revenues increased by $35 million, compared to 2005 numbers, and cited High School Musical as the driving factor.
And the project continues to make money for the company.
In the United States, the High School Musical DVD has sold more than 2.7 million copies since its May 23 release, making it the all-time fastest-selling DVD of a TV movie. Disney also spent the summer broadcasting the movie in 24 different countries, creating a worldwide phenomenon.
Mr. Ortega, a pioneer among Hispanics in silver-screen choreography, has been a part of blockbuster hits with credits going back to the 1980s with such films as Xanadu, Dirty Dancing, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. He also won Emmy Awards for directing and choreographing the 2002 Winter Olympics' opening ceremonies, and he has shaped concert tours for Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Cher.
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