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Disney proteges moving on

Efron, Jonas Bros. venturing out of studio

It has all the elements of a Disney movie: a teen-targeted romantic comedy set in a high school with “High School Musical”-franchise star Zac Efron as its lead.

But “17 Again” was produced by New Line, and like a lot of studios around town, the company is looking to capitalize on the young stars who got their big breaks courtesy of the Mouse House.

Other studios are landing everyone from Efron and his “High School Musical” co-stars to the Jonas Brothers, courting them with the chance to star in high-profile pics.

As a result, Disney is losing its grip over the talent it groomed through the Disney Channel or Hollywood Records, putting it in an unusual position of watching potential moneymakers move off the lot.

• Efron is attached to a “Footloose” redo at Paramount, and is in the running to star in Warner Bros.’ adaptation of the popular animated TV series “Jonny Quest”;

• The Jonas Brothers are set to make their bigscreeen acting bows in Fox’s adaptation of “Walter the Farting Dog,” based on the series of kids books, that Peter and Bobby Farrelly may helm, despite having a new series, “J.O.N.A.S.” premiering on Disney Channel in May;

• Fox 2000 has cast Selena Gomez, a star of Disney Channel’s “Wizards of Waverly Place,” and Joey King (“The Suite Life of Zack and Cody”) in its adaptation of “Beezus and Ramona,” another kidlit series that Walden Media is co-producing;

• Walden also cast “High School Musical” alum Vanessa Hudgens in “Bandslam,” a battle-of-the-bands comedy that Summit Entertainment is releasing this summer. Thesp landed a role in Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch,” an anti-Disney version of “Alice in Wonderland” with machine guns.

Dealmakers say the attraction is mainly money.

Disney doesn’t have the reputation for shelling out a lot of coin for talent, and got into the business of launching the careers of young stars from its cable channel or record label in order to keep costs low and enable it to eke out more profits per project.

As one producer puts it, “Disney is good at getting stars on the way up and on the way down.”

At the same time, Disney is often averse to participating in bidding wars on projects.

But that frugal strategy is driving talent away.

“It’s almost a matter of it being a free market system,” says an exec involved with “17 Again.” “They go where the money is.”

On paper, the Mouse House would appear to have been the perfect fit for “17 Again.”

Disney based multi-hyphenate Adam Shankman was on board to produce the comedy through his Offspring shingle and Efron was attached to star when Jason Filardi’s pitch hit the open market in February 2007.

But it wasn’t Efron’s ballooning pricetag, driven up by the “High School Musical” franchise, that muscled the cost-conscious studio out of contention — the star’s salary wasn’t negotiated until long after New Line bought the project.

Instead, New Line outbid other studios, including Disney, plunking down $750,000 against $1.5 million, for Filardi’s pitch. The pic was produced before “High School Musical 3: Senior Year” bowed last year, but was held for an April 17 release to cash in on that film’s appeal.

“Disney pursued the project but not nearly as aggressively as New Line,” adds the executive. “It was a case where New Line was willing to pay more for the script than Disney. And it was the script that attracted Efron in the first place.”

The Mouse House has been willing to pony up the coin to keep its biggest star, Miley Cyrus, in the Disney family.

Her “Hannah Montana: The Movie” bows April 10, after last year’s concert pic surprised Hollywood with a $70 million worldwide haul.

After her titular feature comes a tailor-made Disney vehicle for Cyrus based on an upcoming Nicholas Sparks book, tentatively titled “The Last Song,” for which he’s also penning the script.

But it’s worth noting that the package, again to be produced by Shankman’s Offspring shingle, never went on the open market.

“Miley might be a little bit more loyal than the others,” says one exec, who is involved with “Last Song.”

But it also depends on how much an actor may want to shed the Disney persona.

Sixteen-year-old Cyrus still has a few years to play the squeaky-clean teen ingenue. But Efron, at 21, can’t really portray the high school hero anymore, and it has become a necessity for him to begin to distance himself from the Disney brand if he wants to have a viable leading man career.

He’s sticking with what he knows, though: “17 Again” features a dance sequence and has Efron’s character playing basketball — not-so-subtle references to “High School Musical.”

The money issue isn’t expected to go away anytime soon.

In a recent interview with KCRW’s “The Business,” Disney chairman Dick Cook said the recession has forced the studio to cut back on how much it spends to produce its movies, and is slashing the paychecks of some stars in half.

“There are some that haven’t quite gotten it yet,” he said. “It maybe hasn’t hit them. But no one gets by this downturn. … The discipline on all of us has changed dramatically in just the last few months. I don’t see that changing quickly at all. People are looking at every single project with the idea of, ‘How can we make it? Can we make it so that it’s economically viable?'”

“We’re proud of fact that we find, nurture, and grow talent who are then sought after by others,” says a Disney spokesman. Disney also says its stars are free to work for any studio.

And if they do that, the studio can always go back to Disney Channel to create more talent. There’s newcomer Demi Lovato, for example, and the fourth installment of “High School Musical” concentrates on the newer characters.

Tatiana Siegel contributed to this report.

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