Top 12 Film Industry Stories of 2008 #9:
Hollywood Programs the Disney Channel
By David Mumpower
January 8, 2009

Disney gets so mad at Hutchens when she plays Shirts vs. Skins.

2008 saw a pair of unusual engagements at the cinemaplex. Both of them had already made a name for themselves in another media format. Specifically, Hannah Montana and High School Musical had become staples of Disney Channel television programming long before they made their theatrical debuts. What was noteworthy about each title is that they got a theatrical release at all.

By now, all of us have a hyper-understanding of the Hannah Montana and High School Musical brands. What is impressive about this is that the same would not have been true 18 months ago, at least for those of us who do not have children. The date where everything changed was August 17, 2007. On that date, High School Musical 2 made its debut on the Disney Channel and earned over double the number of viewers as its predecessor. The 17.3 million people who watched the premiere of this sequel got Hollywood's attention in a big, bad way. At an average ticket price of $6.88, that number would have reflected box office of $119 million. On one day. From that moment on, Disney execs knew that the next release in the High School Musical franchise would be released theatrically.

Hannah Montana was the surprise. The show about a young girl leading a double life as student by day and rock star by night had seen its popularity spike over the summer of 2007. Kids of that age were able to relate to this unlikely premise in a passionate way that would impress even the identical cousins of the world. Gambling that a rising tide would guide this boat even higher, Disney execs slotted their most promising new show after the expected blockbuster, High School Musical 2. The end result was the best night the Disney Channel will ever have. After 17.3 million tuned in to see two hours of singing and dancing, 10.7 million of them left the TV on Hannah Montana afterward. Not only was the 10.7 million a cable record, but records were also set among the kids' demographic of 6-11 year olds (4.2 million) and tweens aged 9-14 (4.1 million). This single episode of Hannah Montana still stands as Disney Channel's third- highest rated broadcast of all time, following on the heels of High Musical 2 being the best. When you have two of your three best performances of all time on the same night, you've had a good night.

After the blockbuster success of Hannah Montana on August 17, 2007, people at Disney embarked upon a plan to capitalize on the higher profile of the show. Its star, Miley Cyrus, was given a key role in a 2008 release, Bolt, that would go on to make over $100 million, domestically. The real masterstroke, however, was a "special one week engagement" concert that combined the nascent celebrity, Cyrus, with her character's fictional vocation, rock star. Through an onslaught of advertisements on the Disney Channel, kids were made well aware of the fact that they would only have seven days to bear witness to a movie theater screening of one of her concerts. Let's just say that the brainwashing in this regard was successful.

The musician daughter of the Achy Breaky Heart guy (face it, Billy Ray, you're a nice enough fellow but that is what is going on your tombstone) saw her film debut with $8.7 million on its first day in theaters. How strong a performance is that? Simply consider that the Rolling Stones concert movie two months later earned $5.4 million during its entire domestic run. I cannot put this in simpler terms in this. Achy Breaky Jr. wiped the floor with the Rolling Stones. If you claim you saw that coming prior to August of 2007, you're a lying liar who is currently telling a lie.

Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour wound up earning $31,117,834 during its opening weekend. This set several records. The main one is that it's the best debut ever for a film with under 1,000 venues. That per-venue average of $45,561 is pretty impressive as well. The other interesting one is that it's the best Super Bowl weekend debut ever, making the Hannah Montana concert movie one of the most successful examples of counterprogramming in box office history. So successful was the movie that Disney promptly ditched their whole "it's only in theaters for a week, we swear" stratagem and left it in theaters just a bit longer. 98 days longer, to be exact. After its 101 days in release, Hannah Montana exited theaters with domestic box office of $65,280,346 against a budget of $6.5 million, making it one of the most successful movies of the year relative to budget with a cool 10:1 ratio of revenue to expense. Not coincidentally, a full-fledged Hannah Montana movie will be released into theaters in 2009.

After Hannah Montana tore up the Super Bowl weekend box office, Disney settled upon an unusual release date for High School Musical 3. The title came out the weekend before Halloween and saw its eighth day of release fall upon the holiday itself. This led to some fascinating ripples of box office behavior. During its opening weekend, High School Musical 3 opened much wider than Hannah Montana's 683 venue debut. The third musical outing started in 3,623 locations, but managed "only" $8.9 million more. With $42.0 million, the movie was still a huge success, just not the breathtaking one that Hannah Montana had been. Seven days after its $17.0 million start, there was a brief scare when the film fell 90% Friday-over-Friday to $1.7 million, a historically unprecedented drop. This proved to be a systemic issue involving the Halloween date itself as only Jamie Kennedy's character in Scream would consider something like High School Musical 3 to be a good scary movie choice for the holiday. The movie recovered nicely over the rest of the weekend, spiking an astounding (and mathematically improbable) 389% to $8.2 million on Saturday and wound up winning the weekend with $15.3 million.

By the time High School Musical had exited theaters, it had earned $90.2 million domestically and $237.2 million worldwide. Combined with Hannah Montana, that gave Disney a grand total of $302 million worldwide for a cost of only $17.5 million. They had done the impossible by turning a pair of cable network shows into huge theatrical successes, particularly relative to budget. That's 17 dollars earned for every dollar invested, a miraculous accomplishment for the studio. Now, what BOP wants to know is when are we getting our Kim Possible movie?