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Hollywood in tune with teen musicals

'High School Musical,' 'Montana' inspire trend

It’s beginning to look a lot like the 1930s.

The economy is in the toilet, and Hollywood studios are filling their pipelines with upbeat dance films, particularly teen hoofers.

Has the ghost of Busby Berkeley infiltrated the high school cafeteria? Or is Hollywood hedging its bets by bringing modestly budgeted crowdpleasing films to an underserved teen girl market?

Disney, Columbia, Screen Gems, MGM and Paramount are among the studios prepping teen-dance musicals. The reasons are not surprising: YouTube and realityTV dance competitions have fueled enthusiasm and, starting with the 2001 “Save the Last Dance,” the genre has a great track record at the box office.

However, the success extends beyond that. Aside from drawing record viewers on the Disney Channel, “High School Musical” and its sequel have sold nearly 15 million CDs, 50 million books, 4.8 million vidgames, and spawned stage shows, concerts and an ice tour. Disney expects $2.7 billion this year from “HSM” and “Hannah Montana” products.

Teens aren’t the only ones tapping their toes. With the world reeling from the economic crisis and in the midst of 21st century angst, adults helped “Mamma Mia!” pass $500 million at the global box office, which gives hope to other studios and their upcoming tuners, such as the Weinstein Co. with “Nine.”

But teens, and especially teen girls, are targeted with films that have relatively low negative costs, good grosses and a healthy afterlife.

This month, Disney will unspool the bigscreen “High School Musical 3: Senior Year,” featuring the footwork and vocals of Zac Efron.

Paramount is on the verge of greenlighting a $35 million “Footloose” remake that reteams Efron with director Kenny Ortega, who helmed all three “HSM” chapters. The Melrose studio is aiming for a March start date.

The 1980 film “Fame” (which spawned a long-running ’80s TV show and a stage version), is also being revived for the bigscreen by Lakeshore Entertainment and MGM. The contemporary-set tuner, being fully financed by Lakeshore, begins shooting in December in Los Angeles and New York.

Additionally, Disney and Summit are moving forward with “Step Up 3-D,” the third installment of its hit dance franchise. The first two chapters grossed $65.3 million and $58 million, respectively, at a negative cost of less than $20 million apiece. Screen Gems is developing “Emme,” a hip-hop reimaging of Jane Austen’s 1816 novel “Emma,” set in an inner-city high school. Columbia is putting together “A Cappella,” a campus-set drama featuring song and dance, with Sam Weisman attached to direct.

“Dance movies come in cycles,” says “Step Up” scribe Melissa Rosenberg, who is a writer-producer on Showtime’s “Dexter.” ” ‘Step Up’ did well, so the studios slam a bunch into production. And then if one doesn’t do well, they will dry up.”

When Rosenberg, a former dancer, began working in Hollywood in the early ’90s, she longed to write a teen dance movie. But the industry suffered two notable flops — 1992’s “Newsies” and 1993’s “Swing Kids” — that put her plans on hold.

“I would get laughed out of the pitch meetings,” recalls Rosenberg, who went on to hone her youth-centric storytelling skills as a writer on “The O.C.” before landing the “Step Up” gig. (She also penned the upcoming teen vampire film “Twilight.”)

But Par’s 2001 breakout “Save the Last Dance,” which grossed $91.1 million domestically, ushered in a new wave of successful teen dance pics. The Julia Stiles starrer was followed by a number of profitable pics, including the two “Step Up” films, “You Got Served” ($40.1 million) and “Stomp the Yard” ($61.4 million).

Paramount production prexy Brad Weston contends teen dance movies are hot because there’s a dearth of other films that resonate with the demographic.

“We don’t have in the marketplace the kind of youth coming-of-age films that we had growing up,” says Weston, citing the John Hughes movies that defined the 1980s. “These dance movies and even sometimes horror movies are, by and large, the only films that teens can relate to.”

Paramount, with its long history of dance classics like “Saturday Night Fever,” “Grease” and “Flashdance,” is carrying on the legacy. In addition to “Footloose,” the studio recently completed a dance movie that will be released in first-quarter 2009. For marketing reasons, Par wants to keep the title and details under wraps until the trailer debuts with the December release “Twilight.”

Every major studio seems eager to get into business with Efron, who is nabbing a big payday for “Footloose.” Par thinks Efron’s star power, coupled with a well-conceived contemporary soundtrack, will help “Footloose” break out beyond the genre’s typical audience of young girls.

Most teen-dance movies feature less-than-recognizable leads, partly because these thesps are economical and partly because only a few young actors who are brand names are capable of performing the elaborate dance sequences required. Though Stiles was rumored to have a body double performing many numbers in “Save the Last Dance” (a la “Flashdance,” where a mustachioed man infamously carried out the breakdancing sequences in Jennifer Beals’ final number), studios are now more apt to cast actors with legitimate dance chops (Efron included).

Lakeshore’s Tom Rosenberg, one of the producers of the updated “Fame,” says his film will be led by a cast of newbies. “When you are doing a film about people in high school, if you are casting authentically aged people, you will likely have relative unknowns,” he says.

He bristles at the suggestion his project is yet another teen dance movie. “It’s not a contrived dance-off,” he says. “It’s not a stylized film. It’s a drama with real characters. We don’t have cartoon characters.”

But he notes that “Fame,” like its predecessor, shares one thing in common with other movies covering the high school demo.

“There’s a lot of fun in the film because you’re dealing with teenagers, and there’s a lot of energy there,” says Rosenberg (who, with Albert S. Ruddy, won an Oscar as producers of “Million Dollar Baby”).

“Hairspray” helmer Adam Shankman is at the forefront of developing dance-themed films. The former choreographer, who is partnered with sister Jennifer Gibgot in their Disney-based Offspring Entertainment shingle, produced the “Step Up” films and has a number of dance-themed movies in development, including “Drill Team,” which is set in the competitive world of such high school squads.

“In the post-9/11 world, what people want out of cinema has really changed,” says Offspring VP Matthew Mizel, a co-producer on “Step Up 2 the Streets” and “Drill Team.” “These movies fit perfectly. Dance is exciting onscreen. The ones that work best capture an underdog story, a fish-out-of-water story and add a touch of romance.”

J.C. Spink, who is producing “Emme” as well as the teen dance spoof “Dirty Step Stomp” for the Weinstein Co., says YouTube is driving interest in the genre.

“There are so many styles of dance and so many people doing them, and they have become so accessible to see because of advances in technology like YouTube,” says Spink, citing the Soulja Boy “Crank That” instructional dance video, which became a viral phenomenon, prompting teens to shoot and post videos featuring their own renditions of the moves. “In the ’80s, you saw Michael Jackson dancing, and he was an amazing dancer, but it wasn’t really accessible to the average teen.”

Screen Gems topper Clint Culpepper says he came up with the idea for “Emme,” which will include at least 15 song-and-dance numbers, after watching the YouTube video “Lipgloss” by Lil Mama. Small-screen fare like “High School Musical,” “Randy Jackson Presents America’s Best Dance Crew” and “Camp Rock,” and even the older-skewing “Dancing With the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance,” might also be driving more traffic to the multiplex.

“The TV market is generating a lot of this interest as well,” Melissa Rosenberg says. “To see macho guys like Jerry Rice (competing on ‘Dancing With the Stars’) shows
young guys that dancing isn’t just something for girls.”