News Column

Head of the Class: Kenny Ortega

December 2006, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine

Mike Traphagen

Director Kenny Ortega on set.
Director Kenny Ortega on set.

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.

He says he knows when a project is capable of reaching the entertainment stratosphere.

"I've been lucky enough to taste success before, and it always involves the right project with the right people moving toward the common goal of finishing the project," says Mr. Ortega, who directed episodes for TV series such as Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal and Gilmore Girls.

"But even when you get a feeling in your gut that says, 'This could be special,' it's not enough. The project has to take on another life. It's not just the script, the rehearsal, and the production. It's the editing, the marketing, the promotion ... the company behind it needs to know how to put it out there."

On the set of High School Musical, Mr. Ortega gathered his young cast for a prediction about the project.

"I told them, 'If everyone else puts into this job what you've put into it, then this is going to be something special,'" he recalls. "And when the cast was ready to step onto the set of Good Morning, America to talk about the movie, they called me and said, 'You told us this would happen.'"

The experience has encouraged Mr. Ortega to work on more projects geared toward the tween demographic. After High School Musical, he says he was "content with just resting" before taking on another project.

But an offer came along that he couldn't refuse.

"They asked me if I wanted to do The Cheetah Girls 2, and when I heard it was going to be in Barcelona, I knew I had to do it," says Mr. Ortega, adding that his mother's and father's families were from Spain. "I've been a tourist there, but having the chance to work there is a dream come true. It's one of the most culturally vibrant cities in the world. And just thinking about waking up in Barcelona, eating tortillas (omelets), and walking to a caf�. For those reasons, I knew I had to do this.

"Sometimes we do things to promote our careers and other times we do things for our souls. We went there and really got connected to the environment. The bonus was that the movie was absolutely fantastic."

The Cheetah Girls 2, which has been seen by 21 million viewers in just four broadcasts since its August 25 premier, is the sequel to another smash hit TV movie from Disney. It focuses on a diverse quartet of young girls, including actress Raven Symone, who struggle to make their dreams of stardom come true. Its premier boasted 7.8 million viewers, edging the debut of High School Musical (7.7 million).

"At this stage of my life, if I'm going to work on something, there has to be hope at the center of the project," Mr. Ortega says. "This is about girls from different social backgrounds finding each other. There's a foster child, a Puerto Rican, an African American, another who comes from a white-collar family . . . where else other than youth will you find people from these backgrounds forming friendships?

"Something like this reminds us that life tends to move us into little groups. As children, we can share cultures and find a love for one another. I think as some of us grow older, we tend to forget that."

Disney Channel aired the original Cheetah Girls in 2003. It captured 6.5 million viewers and later sold more than a million DVDs, 2 million copies of the soundtrack, and spawned a nationwide concert tour.

All of which set the stage for a Cheetah Girls sequel and for the High School Musical juggernaut.

"I think there is an opportunity to attract the 9-to-14 age group, and Disney is doing it," Mr. Ortega says. "But with High School Musical, that movie is almost changing Disney's demographic. It's not just the young kids who are enjoying it."

Mr. Ortega's niece, Ally, learned of the Disney production's sweeping popularity when she entered San Diego State University this fall as a freshman. He says that Ally saw a posting on a dorm bulletin board boasting of a special night � a viewing of High School Musical.

"She was shy and didn't know anyone, so she went to see if people were really gathering to watch the movie," he says. "She showed up and there was a room filled with college students watching the movie, the sing-along version. Word got around that I was her uncle and she met a lot of people that day."

Now Mr. Ortega and the original cast are preparing for the High School Musical sequel, which will be released on Disney Channel next summer.

"Everyone is looking forward to coming back, but these are enlightened kids who know they'll have to work hard again to create something special," Mr. Ortega says. "If we approach it with honesty and enthusiasm, I think it will work. And, again, the talent is there, the music is there, and Disney is there."

Source: HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine and, Copyright (c) 2006 All Rights Reserved.

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