Disney’s new kids on the block

Industry blogger Nikki Finke recently wrote that Miley Cyrus now has the power to do what Julia Roberts, Kevin Costner and Eddie Murphy can’t – open a blockbuster movie. The teen star’s Hannah Montana movie’s US$130m opening weekend surprised everyone and the international revenues are likely to eclipse those from domestic. Admittedly it has slowed since, but the numbers illustrate the star power the teen TV-turned-movie-turned-music star has.

That American child and teen stars are ruthlessly professional and successful is hardly surprising. But Disney is now working to ensure its next global star has as good a chance of coming from Europe as from the US.

A new wave of Europe-based teen multi-hyphenates is being groomed for bigger things. Take Italy’s Jacopo Sarno, 18. Having starred in Disney Channel Italy’s Fiore Tinelli and QDI, he went on to star as Troy in the local stage version of High School Musical. He then became the first Italian signed to Walt Disney Records and will release his first album later this year.

“Clearly we want talent that is representative of the audience and the values we like to put forward. We have talent that can sing, dance and act – Miley [Cyrus] is an example of that,” says Giorgio Stock, executive VP and MD, Disney Channels, Europe. “In our local selections we are taking a similar approach. Some talent can go 360° and we clearly want people that can go in different directions.”

In a system reminiscent of Hollywood in days gone by, Disney has assembled a stable of child stars.

“We haven’t willingly pursued that system, but in a country like Italy there is basically no place for young talent to go – we have to grow talent that has little experience and they grow with us,” says Stock. But, he admits that it doesn’t want the stars that break through to escape Disney’s clutches: “We have long term deals with talent to allow us to build their careers and to not let them run away,” he says.

The other new names that Disney is priming for bigger things include Britain’s Brad Kavanagh and Spain’s Ismael. Kavanagh has already appeared on stage, behind the camera and has made a trio of music videos that were shown on the Disney Channel. Ismael, seen as a potential star among the US Hispanic and Latin American audience, has been in Cambio de Classe and is about to record a new album.

The next step could be for one of the European stars to star in one of the super successful Disney Channel Original Movies with Gary Marsh, president of entertainment, Disney Channel Worldwide and senior casting people running the rule over the non-US talent.