Disney Channel Original Movies: 12 little-known stories
June 24 marks a momentous occasion in your childhood, even if you’ve already grown out of it: The 100th Disney Channel Original Movie will air on the network of the same name this Friday night, and whether you’re in the demographic to catch Disney Channel’s centennial cinematic title (Adventures in Babysitting, starring Sabrina Carpenter and Sofia Carson), the idea of a hundredth achievement for the beloved brand may still mean something special to you—or who you used to be.
The DCOM, as most millennials know it, officially began in 1997, but its history stems back to the early ‘80s. 100 movies later, its future hinges on the programming team assembled by Gary Marsh, President and Chief Creative Officer of Disney Channels Worldwide, who’s keen to come up with another 100 original movies that, in his words, “break some rules, make me nervous, and get me excited about something we haven’t done before.”
Marsh has been with Disney Channel since the late ‘80s and has helped usher and update the DCOM brand through generations, passing it along from the kids who spent their days on the playground quoting movies about roller skates and spaceships, to the tweens who turned a high school musical into an unprecedented international phenomenon, to the social media savvy influencers who transformed Disney’s most famous descendants into franchise-making behemoths.
Here, on the eve of the 100th DCOM (airing Friday at 8 p.m.), Marsh shares with EW a slew of memories from 30 years of DCOM development.
1. The DCOM began as a way to impress your parents…
For a long time, Disney Channel was a premium service that kids could only access if their parents shelled out a Hamilton for a monthly subscription — so, DCOMs were all about making good impressions. “The strategy, as a pay service, was that you’re making content so the adult in the family is going to feel like he or she got their money’s worth,” Marsh explains. As a result of the effort, Disney Channel’s films in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s were “much more serious, literary-minded pieces,” he says. “We made a miniseries based on Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. We did Great Expectations [as a mini-series]. We did a remake of Heidi, and a wonderful movie called Mark Twain and Me. They were all very elegant and more adult-driven family movie storytelling.”
2. …but everything changed when the kids took over.
Around 1991, during the channel’s transition into a basic cable service, the audience base skyrocketed and kids began dominating the remote, with or without their parents. The move (to what Marsh now calls “kid-driven family programming”) resulted in an overall strategy change to transform a Friday night program into a must-see appointment event—a notion that solidified in 1996 and birthed the DCOM brand as you know it today. “If we did our job correctly, the goal was for DCOMs and your knowledge of DCOMs to become social currency,” says Marsh. “Hopefully, it was the must-see TV of the schoolyard set.”
3. The third DCOM’s the charm.
Disney Channel considers 1997’s Under Wraps as its first official DCOM, but Marsh says the brand first began to draw eyeballs outside of the network with the release of the third film, 1998’s inline skating flick, Brink!. “That was the first one that really captured everybody’s attention,” says Marsh. “And Smart House [in June 1999] was probably the next one that people took special note of.” Both films — and several others over the next few years — would become measured in success by the volume of their day-after chatter. “It was the playground buzz, which was the equivalent of watercooler conversation,” says Marsh. “You were in the in-crowd if you knew what ‘Cetus lapetus!’ [from Zenon] meant, or if you could use ‘cheetahlicious’ [from The Cheetah Girls] in a sentence. It really became a calling card for six- to 14-year-old kids.”
4. Zenon almost became a TV series — and still could.
Why have no DCOMs ever made the leap into full-fledged television shows? Marsh maintains, “I want to say it’s one of our great frustrations, but it’s unusual that none of them have ever turned into series. I have no good reason why. Some things just have a life of their own and live in a certain space. The ones that had staying power, from a storytelling perspective, we created sequels and threequels.” Still, the president points out one title as the most promising: 1999’s Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century, which Marsh calls “the one that’s always under discussion, and has been perennially” for adaptation into a TV show. The reason? It’s one of the only DCOMs that created an entire world beyond just a capsulized story. “That world can go anywhere,” he says. “There’s no limit.”
5. High School Musical wasn’t the first DCOM to mess with the marketplace.
If the first generation of DCOMs is defined by Disney Channel’s time spent as a premium-pay addition, the second generation can arguably be defined as everything up until High School Musical, the 2006 blockbuster that broke network records and elevated the DCOM brand from generational favorite into global phenomenon. “There wasn’t an opportunity to buy a CD for a while, but it was the era right when iTunes was starting, so we had the first taste of what could happen if you had music available in some other format,” Marsh recalls. But, he says, it was actually 2003’s The Cheetah Girls that first shook up the system in stores. “The Cheetah Girls was the first of our broad-based, music-driven movies. It was a giant success, but there was a reluctance because nobody had ever seen how a television movie could launch either a franchise or a product line at retail.”
6. Contrary to popular belief, movies weren’t written for specific actors…
It’s a no-brainer that there’s a certain power in utilizing the roster of Disney Channel series stars in the network’s movies — name recognition at its finest — but Marsh says it’s not a chicken-egg paradox of tailoring a film to fit an available actor. “With rare exception, we wrote the scripts first and then looked through the roster to see who made the most sense for the role,” he says. “We said to all the talent, ‘You don’t get the part because you’re in a Disney Channel series.’ You get first right to earn the part.”
7. …and auditions weren’t easy.
The casting process, to the network’s credit, wasn’t just for show. “Almost every one of [the actors] has to audition, and they all look at us with the same, ‘But you know me!’ and we say, ‘But this isn’t you. This is a part you have to earn,’” says Marsh, specifically recounting one stand-out example: Shia LaBeouf’s arduous audition process to play an autistic twin in 2002’s Tru Confessions. “When that script came in, it was such a different, strong, powerful movie for us, and I thought the only way I’m making this is if I can cast somebody who’s going to bring an audience. I called Shia up and said, ‘This is yours to lose.’ He trained for it for two weeks, then came in and auditioned, and he overdid it. He was doing a version of Gilbert Grape, a much more severely impacted condition than the movie called for. And we talked through what the challenge of this part was, and then he said, ‘Give me a shot, give me a shot.’ And he went back and started doing this research, medically, and visited kids who had the exact same condition and he studied and studied, and he came back two weeks later and said, ‘I’m ready now.’ And he gave a performance that knocked our socks off. That’s how he got the part.”
8. One big Disney Channel star is missing from the DCOM roster.
Marsh offers a challenge to you, dear reader: Name the one major Disney Channel series star who never headlined a DCOM. The answer is Miley Cyrus, and it’s technically true. Right on the heels of the premiere of Hannah Montana, Cyrus “had a tiny, tiny role in High School Musical 2 in the closing production number at the country club pool.” But, Marsh says, she stands out as an exception since her cohorts — like “Shia, Hilary [Duff], Christy [Romano], the Sprouse twins, Raven [Symoné], Brenda Song, Demi Lovato, the Jonas Brothers, Selena [Gomez]” and so many more — all appeared as DCOM leads during their tenure on the network.
9. Non-Disney stars were always welcome, despite being outside the family.
If an in-house actor “couldn’t nail it or didn’t have the exact acting skills to command a role,” Marsh says they had no reservations about bringing in somebody else, even from a competing channel. That’s why you saw teen stars like Malcolm in the Middle‘s Frankie Muniz or 7th Heaven‘s Beverly Mitchell leading their own pictures on Disney Channel. And if you really want to get into some deep cut cameos, the studio keeps a comprehensive list of stars who appeared in DCOMs before their break-out roles. Among the then-debutantes: Brie Larson (Right on Track), Kat Dennings (The Scream Team), Taran Killam (Stuck in the Suburbs), Emmy Rossum (Genius), Kaley Cuoco (Alley Cats Strike), America Ferrera (Gotta Kick It Up!), and Mischa Barton (A Ring of Endless Light).
10. The 18th most-watched DCOM might surprise you.
Sorry to get all click-baity on you, but the list of the highest-rated DCOMs is not without its share of fun surprises. The top 10 spans all sorts of genres in the channel’s history, beginning with High School Musical 2 (with 18.6 million viewers in Live+7 ratings) and continuing with Teen Beach Movie (13.5), Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie (13.5), Descendants (12.2), Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Across the 2nd Dimension (10.6), Camp Rock (10.1), Princess Protection Program (9.8), Camp Rock 2 (9.06), Jump In! (8.45), and Good Luck Charlie, It’s Christmas! (8.3). Perhaps most interesting, the oldest films that remain in the top 20 most-viewed DCOMs are 2001’s Halloweentown II: Kalabar’s Revenge, which clocks in at #18, and 2002’s Cadet Kelly, which sits at #15.
11. Only three Disney Channel properties have been scooped up by the features side.
Most DCOMs are purposefully written, pitched, and produced specifically for Disney Channel, but there have been three occasions — two series and one DCOM — that saw Walt Disney Studios tapping into its television counterpart for a movie idea: Lizzie McGuire, Hannah Montana, and High School Musical. It’s a move of flattery, says Marsh: “The studio has, to a large degree, already adopted the strategy [we share] of trying to make movies stand for something greater than a Friday night in May.”
12. A live musical might launch the next generation of DCOMs.
Throughout the history of the DCOM, the network has pulled off a string of musicals, from break-into-song musicals to show-within-a-show performance tuners. Marsh cites Fox’s Grease: Live as a recent example of the genre freshly reinvented, and says his team has frequently discussed whether a live DCOM event could be in the cards. “We’ve talked about [a live musical],” he admits. “If there’s a piece of event programming that makes sense to adapt, we’d certainly explore it. If I can find something that will really speak to my audience, and I’m not doing it simply because it existed successfully 30 years ago, I would explore it. The reality is, every one of our movies is built on four fundamental pillars that apply to all of Disney Channel: Express yourself, believe in yourself, follow your dreams, and celebrate your family. And the more successfully we hit those four tentpoles, the more successful the movies are.”
Adventures in Babysitting