CARLA POWER / LONDON
There may be someone on earth — a cloistered abbess, perhaps, or a Taliban soldier in a particularly remote post — who has yet to learn that High School Musical 3 opened last Friday. (It promptly leaped to the top of the U.S. box office, to the tune of a $42 million weekend take, and was No. 1 in each of the 19 international markets in which it opened.) But it's a rare human who hasn't at least heard of the Disney tween hit, given the passion of its fans and the zeal of Disney's promotion. What began two years ago as a made-for-cable kids' movie about American teens playing basketball and putting on a show has mushroomed into a global phenomenon, with followers from Caracas to Cambodia and a breathtaking range of platforms: a stage show, a concert tour, reality shows, a book-publishing series (50 million copies sold in 24 languages) and scores of tie-ins from breakfast cereals to Bible study guides.
The all-American love story between East High's basketball star, Troy, and math ace Gabriella has proven a triumph not just for Disney — which has reaped around $680 million in retail sales from the franchise to date — but for cultural globalization. In Latin America, HSM concerts play 50,000-seat stadiums. Swedes and Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Poles have been among the millions to take in HSM: The Ice Tour, which has three worldwide touring companies. The stage show has played in dozens of cities worldwide, including Beirut, where it premiered during violent clashes. On HSM web forums, fans from Madagascar and Malta chat with Indonesians and Pakistanis. Director Kenny Ortega recently visited a Kenyan orphanage, where he was met with greetings for HSM sweethearts Troy and Gabriella. Says Rich Ross, president of Disney Channels Worldwide: "You'd have to be in a cave not to know about it."
Cynics can scoff at the product's bubblegum blandness, but that's precisely what's helped make HSM a global hit. The archetypes of Gabriella the brainy new girl in town, Troy the jock and Sharpay the diva travel well, as do the poppy songs and the themes of first love, cliques and friendship. Ross toured 25 regional Disney Channels around the globe two years ago, trying to convince them of HSM's potential. He met resistance "everywhere." But when Chinese or Russian marketers would fret that local viewers wouldn't get cheerleaders or basketball, he would drill down to human nature: "Do you have kids who play sport?" he'd ask. "Who are growing up and learning how to be themselves?" Evidently so: more than 255 million people around the world have seen the original HSM movie, and 293 million have seen its sequel. The album of High School Musical 2 went triple platinum in the U.S., quadruple platinum in Argentina and gold in Saudi Arabia.
Traditionally, a television's show success hinges on reaching a particular market on a particular night. But HSM's success has been built less from high viewer ratings than generating buzz — and buying — connected to the show. "HSM showed a [show's success] doesn't just happen on one night," says Ross. "You weave it together, forming a partnership between programming and marketing. You go different places to reach different people." The franchise had good timing; HSM's appearance coincided with the rise of a global middle class that's equipped to absorb it. When it first came out in 2006, the newly minted consumers in the Middle East, Latin America and Asia had the TVs to watch it on; their kids could keep the buzz alive via Internet and cell phone. After the movie aired on Chinese TV, Ross called his man in Beijing to ask for viewer numbers. "Oh, above average," came the response. "About 50 million."
Such success is testimony to Disney's deft globalization policy. The company left the tunes and story intact worldwide but added local flavor by region. Disney's basic marketing formula for the film's release abroad: find a local star to serve as a bridge between the Disney content and the local market. In Poland, fans watch HSM videos that splice together scenes from the original movie dubbed by fresh-faced Polish pop stars. On Israel's Disney Channel, a Gabriella lookalike sings soulfully in Hebrew. In India, the entire sound track has been re-recorded in Hindi, with Indian instruments — the tabla and dholak. The video shows Bollywood dancers dressed in Jaipur-pink cheerleading outfits, cavorting to bhangra, a north Indian dance beat.
America is trussed up with Disney tie-ins, so it's no surprise that Stateside fans, should they choose, can watch HSM the movie while eating HSM candy, then scrub up with HSM hand sanitizer before going to sleep under an HSM duvet. But Disney's global marketing strategy, combined with its embrace of a range of technologies to reach various regions and audiences, has ensured that HSM's reach stretches far beyond America's shores. "It's genius," says Michael Gubbins, editor of Screen International, a London-based industry magazine, of Disney's HSM marketing strategy. "They've understood that TV is a way to get into people's heads, and that the Internet is a way to enrich that, and that cinema is a place to add to that excitement. It shows exactly the way franchises are going to be built in the future."
In some markets, Disney has gone so far as to nest one franchise inside another. In Latin America, it's created local HSM brands that don't compete with the American version but riff off its popularity with new movies tailored to the local market. This summer came the release of two Spanish-language feature films — High School Musical: El Desafio — one for the Mexican market, and the other for the Argentinian one. These franchises within franchises, says Diego Lerner, president of Disney Latin America, build "closer links with the communities we're aiming for and respect the local cultural environment." In Mexico, the hero plays soccer, not basketball, while his Argentinean counterpart plays rugby. Similar local HSM-inspired movies are planned for Brazil, Russia and India — where the hero will be a cricketer. These spin-offs — which come with marketing tie-ins of their own — allow Disney "to become a real global company," observes Lerner. "By making local movies on top of the original, we're adding value on top of value." As the Disney song observes, it's a small world. High School Musical is making it even smaller.