As top young stars soar, many are stepping behind the scenes

Never mind directing. Many young stars are telling the studios that what they really want to do is … produce.

A number of next-generation thesps, from Taylor Lautner to Zac Efron to Miley Cyrus, are leveraging their clout to launch producing careers. Moving beyond the momagers and minders that have reigned in recent years, these teens and twentysomethings are seizing control of their careers by optioning books, commissioning scripts and packaging projects as potential starring vehicles.

But like most teen ambitions, success is easier said than done.

“A lot of people get vanity deals, but they aren’t really producing,” says Nick Cannon, who offered a template for the new multi-threat when he became Nickelodeon’s youngest-ever producer by taking on that responsibility on the network’s “The Nick Cannon Show.” “I was actually doing the job and figuring out budgets and making sure things met their deadlines. Coming from the world of stand-up, I already had the mindset of a producer. As a comedian, I wrote my material, booked the venue, promoted the show, performed, etc.”

Cannon, now 30, is in the middle of a multi-year deal with Nickelodeon that calls for him to star in, create, produce and direct original programming for TeenNick via his NCredible Entertainment shingle and to serve as TeenNick’s chairman. Though Cannon has enjoyed producing success — with credits that include MTV’s “Nick Cannon Presents Wild ‘n’ Out” and Miramax’s “Underclassman” — some of Hollywood’s biggest youth-skewing celebs have had trouble getting their projects off the ground.

Jonah Hill is exec producing a remake of “21 Jump Street” for Columbia, but that project appears to be nowhere near the start gate as it continues to be mired in script purgatory. “Heroes” star Hayden Panettiere produced a promising pilot for the CW about Harvard medical students, but the series was never picked up. Selena Gomez, who has leveraged her “Wizards of Waverly Place” star turn into a feature career, unveiled her July Moon Prods. more than two years ago amid much fanfare but has yet to announce a single project.

Still, a handful of film stars have managed to garner a greenlight for their producing efforts. Lautner, who launched Tailor Made Entertainment with his father Dan last year, will see the shingle’s John Singleton-helmed thriller “Abduction” hit the bigscreen in 2011. Cyrus’ Hope Town Entertainment banner is in pre-production on the $15 million sorority comedy “So Undercover.”

And that’s providing inspiration for a number of up-and-comers such as Alex Pettyfer and David Henrie, who are wading into producing waters. Many cite a desire to develop interesting material as the biggest reason for making the foray.

“I was just tired of reading crap,” recalls the 20-year-old Pettyfer, the titular star of DreamWorks’ upcoming sci-fi thriller “I am Number Four” who has set up an untitled biopic on 1960-70s Formula 1 racer James Hunt at DW. “It might seem hard to believe, but I began working on this project when I was 15,” says Pettyfer, who is currently taking meetings with Ridley Scott about another producing project. “I have a very specific taste. I want to direct my own career and make the kind of movies I want to make.”

Pettyfer says watching “I am Number Four” producer Steven Spielberg at work provided an invaluable learning experience.

“The man is the godfather of film,” notes the 20-year-old, who recently teamed with Hugh Jackman’s former producing partner John Palermo. “Having him a part of ‘I Am Number Four’ was such a huge thing. As a producer, I am looking to find things that other people wouldn’t make because maybe they didn’t think they were commercial, or they weren’t willing to take the risk. To me, that’s what (Spielberg’s career) is all about — taking risks, seeing something in a project that others couldn’t see.”

Similarly, Gomez’s “Wizards of Waverly Place” co-star Henrie is looking at producing as a way to expand the scope of material he has access to. Henrie, who began thinking outside the acting box by writing episodes of “Waverly Place,” formed Yute Prods. (a play on Joe Pesci’s famous botched pronunciation of the word “youth” in “My Cousin Vinny”) as a way to exert more control over his career options.

First up for the banner is a $50,000 short titled “Bliss” he directed and produced starring younger brother Lorenzo. Henrie is also producing an adaptation of the Platinum Studios comicbook “The Weapon” and developing six more properties with major brand partners.

“I come from a big Italian family, the kind where you have to speak up to be heard,” Henrie explains. “I used to shoot video birthday parodies for members of my family. I didn’t know it then, but I was writing, directing, acting, producing.”

Ultimately, producing gives thesps a way to get hands-on with a project and flex their business muscles.

Notes Cannon, “It gives you a much bigger stake in the success of a project and makes you more invested in the way it’s developed, cast, budgeted and marketed.”

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