Numlock Sunday: Matty Merritt on the rise and fall of the Disney Channel Original Movie
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week, I spoke to Matty Merritt, who wrote “High School Musical changed everything: An oral history of the Disney Channel Original Movie” for Morning Brew. Here's what I wrote about it:
The Disney Channel Original Movie has reached a mythical status among a certain generation, specifically the one I am in, as a holdover from a fascinating era in children’s television and original filmmaking history. If there’s an inflection point that changed the Disney Channel Original Movie, it’s High School Musical, made for a budget of $4 million and released to acclaim in 2006. It evolved into a juggernaut: The tour grossed $33 million, the High School Musical 3 film was released theatrically and made $253 million, and within the first five years the film franchise made $4 billion. It demonstrated the potential of what were essentially just TV movies for teenagers, but also in some ways spelled the end of an era of experimentation and innovation for the series. Prior to High School Musical, 82 percent of Disney Channel Original Movies were original concepts, not sequels or franchises. After, that number dropped to 52 percent.
What a fun topic, and Merritt’s got the goods when it came to sourcing. If you’re like me and grew up in that era it’s a great piece, and if you’re not like me it’s still a fascinating time in pop culture history that has ramifications for what’s happening right now in the movie business.
Merritt can be found at Morning Brew.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
You wrote a really incisive and exciting story about the Disney Channel Original Movie, which for readers of a certain age is just such a canonical element of the way that they grew up in the world. What drew you to writing about it now?
Yeah, so I work for Morning Brew, and back this summer because it was the 100th anniversary of Disney, we were just putting together a newsletter about Disney and we could pitch whatever we wanted. And I had pitched this oral history of Disney Channel Original Movies, thinking I could put it together in a couple weeks for this special newsletter.
And as I started researching and reaching out to people, I reached out to my editor and I was like, "Hey, there's actually no way I can do this; I really want to do this piece, but not in a few weeks. I want to actually put work into it." And they kindly were like, "Yeah, whatever, take as long as you need to put it together," which is so— I feel very blessed.
But it was truly something that I thought I was going to be able to whip up really fast and just do a fun little oral history on, and it obviously was so much deeper than that, and there were so many people to talk to. And I just started, I think I reached out to a hundred people. I think I sent a hundred emails and 20 people responded. And then I did probably 17 interviews and hours of transcribing.
And then I think now especially, why I thought it was so interesting with this narrative of franchises and sequels is because Disney is going through this again with Marvel and all of its other movies. And Hollywood right now is in this franchise era and sequel era, and they're all flopping. And so I thought the narrative of DCOM being really successful and then the franchise-ification of everything really mirrored the era we’re in with Hollywood right now, which was very interesting to me.
I just think it's such an interesting topic. It's got so many things going on, and we will talk a little bit about the franchise element later, but I think that people don't necessarily sometimes appreciate how much of pop culture stemmed from some of these. They really did make stars. Do you want to talk a little bit about their role within Disney and where they came from?
The first one was 1997, and it really was the Disney Channel just asking Gary Marsh to put together a team for made-for-TV movies. They had made TV movies before, and they were just random kids movies, nothing really related. So they asked Gary Marsh, who was this person who worked at Disney. They were like, "We want made-for-TV movies for the Disney Channel. And we want to develop a way to make them and these teams."
They were really low budget, like $4 million a movie. They hired a ton of people who worked in made-for-TV movies because at the time there wasn't a ton of kids programming. So what I think was so crazy is that they just hired all these people who worked on The Phil Donahue Show, or Lifetime, or these movies that were not kid friendly, and they were like, "Okay, you have to make kids movies."
But they all came from the made-for-TV world, like Michael Healy, who was the senior vice president of the channel who had all of these ideas and was on the ground coming up with everything. The brains behind High School Musical literally told me, "Oh, I just got so tired of making disease-of-the-week movies for other channels that I just thought it would be cool to make kids movies."
So they invented these made-for-TV movies. And obviously Disney was involved, but a lot of the people I talked to, especially in the early years, they just made it sound like they gave them the budget, they told them to make these movies, they gave them a really, really tight timeline, and they just wanted a movie every month or every other month to put on the channel to hype up, just to fill in for this channel and make the channel more interesting to kids. They had a lot of freedom, and I think a lot of that is because Michael Healy shielded all of the people from actually having to deal with any higher-ups for a really long time.
And then the Disney Channel Original Movie was created, and then High School Musical was amazing, and they got a lot of money. And then, I don't want to say they're bad, but they just got more money and now they're these huge productions.
They start off as these just like, well, we need to fill the time. And then they start getting good because people just do good stuff. And then once they get good, it seems like the attention of The Mouse turns to them and then all of a sudden they start getting interfered with?
Oh, yeah. And I think Disney all along had plans to blow this up in a way. Like, they wouldn't create this thing unless they thought they could make money off of it, so I don't think it was shocking to them that it was good. But I do think the cool thing about these Disney Channel Original Movies is obviously they were so small budget that they just really milked tax credits in different areas.
I know! Can you believe it? Can you even believe it?
And this was a piece that if I could write 700 pages, or 1,000 pages on Disney Channel Original Movies, I would go into the tax credits because it was so fascinating. They were really trying to milk these tax credits. They built these hubs in the early 2000s in New Orleans, and Salt Lake City, Utah, and Toronto, these areas that had virtually very small film scenes, and they just happened to get these huge tax credits. And then overnight these film scenes grew up.
So a lot of the people I talked to who had worked at Disney in the early days making these movies were like, "Before this, I was barely working in film, and I became the production designer of the next movie." And so it was all these people in the 2000s that had very little experience, were given these huge roles, and they just got to make whatever they wanted with low budgets, which I think is very cool, as a creative person, to hear that that happened.
The thing that I love about it — and you have this very cool chart in here that just shows how High School Musical obviously was a colossal hit for them — but the budget for the first one was $4.2 million, and then within five years it had brought in $4 billion in retail sales.
It was truly so crazy how much money it made.
I don't think I realized; I knew High School Musical was a big deal, I loved it, but it's so insane. Especially, they got these huge tax write-offs from Utah. You know what I mean? So it's like it cost them no money to make, and it just made so much money. I don't think anyone realized how successful it was going to be. They knew it would be cool, but I don't think anyone realized how successful it was going to be. And then Disney was like, "Wait, this is awesome. Let's put this in the theater. Let's release the third one theatrically." And everyone was really upset about that. They had built this incredible thing, and then everything became a musical and everything became a franchise.
This line, well, you spoke to a producer in here who had this line being like, "The moment we figured that we were cooked was when they started to refer to Disney Channel Movies as 'jewels in the Disney crown.'"
Yeah, I think that was, I want to say that was Kevin. Everyone was so real with me. All these producers and production designers were so honest to the point where I was like, "I'm not publishing that. It's going to get you in trouble." But Kevin was like — he was awesome — he was like, "Oh, yeah, we absolutely knew because no one cared for so long. And then all these producers and all of these big executive people started paying attention, and they started showing up, and they started giving us more money."
And I think he was the one who told me that when they were making the first Camp Rock, it was just right after High School Musical, so it hadn't quite hit how successful they could be. And so they made the first Camp Rock. It was cool. It was awesome. They made it at a camp. And then he's like, "For the second Camp Rock, we were in a private plane scouting locations with the head of Disney." And he was like, "This is insane. What are we doing? We are making made-for-TV movies that people care about."
I really dug this chart that you have in here that shows what the effect of that was, because there were a lot of original ideas, and then High School Musical was too big of a hit, and then all of a sudden they did not want to do original ideas anymore to the extent that they once did.
Yeah, I am a broken record about this franchise-ification. I think it is so fascinating because, truly in the early years, it really felt like they were just trying to figure out what stuck and what worked. I think that gave them a lot of freedom to make all these movies. And they were just trying everything.
Like Sheri Singer, who was a producer I interviewed, was talking about how Gary Marsh would just come to her and be like, "Oh, we need a WNBA movie," or like, "Oh, we need a racing movie, I don't know, like sports movies."
And then when they saw that High School Musical was so successful, they really just wanted to keep doing it, and wanted to keep making sort of the same movie, singing kids, which I don't think— The movies that came after it I really loved. But I think you start to see that they just start taking fewer and fewer risks. So it's like, "Oh, this worked. Let's just make it again and let's give it a bigger budget." And some of the people still working there were like, "It's really cool to be working on this movie that we have this huge budget for." But some of them are like, "Yeah, but they're not going to make Luck of the Irish ever again."
The step dancing movie is the first one that gets cut the minute the withering eye of Michael Eisner sees it.
So just backing out, what are your takeaways about how the movie industry has changed and evolved based on writing this?
I think that's a great question, as an expert in the movie industry. I think truly, not to sound like a broken record, but the franchise and sequel boom is something where I, in my short time as a journalist, have noticed that anytime there's any fear in the market or any economy worries, I think Hollywood execs get really, really nervous and just keep making the same thing over and over again. I see that now. And I think that in some sense happened at Disney with these DCOMs, in addition to seeing that High School Musical was a success.
I think that, I get it, it's a business; they're trying to make things that they know are successful. But as far as a place where you can still make weird new stuff and innovative stuff, I just don't think that exists as much anymore.
Yeah. I was reading this piece, and it has confirmed a lot of things that I have seen, and fears I have about risk aversion within Hollywood, just because putting some thought to it, there's nothing, there's nobody left giving $4 million for a vaguely unproven concept, and as a result they're just not discovering the talent anymore to the extent that they don't have a place to develop.
Yeah. And it's like once I wrote this, I became just so hyper aware of that happening everywhere. It almost was such an emotional... It sounds so cheesy, but this was such an insane piece to write at a time when the media world is imploding, and there's no risk-taking in anything, unless you're doing it out of your own pocket.
I'm also a comedian and one thing that I thought was so crazy was that, I had posted this on my story, and I had some friends who were doing stuff at Second City or some of these bigger theaters in the city. I'm in Chicago. And they're like, "Wow. The parallels between making it big, big in Chicago comedy, being on the Second City main stage, and being allowed to do the comedy that we want is, you're not allowed to."
You do the comedy that they know will be successful for these touristy audiences. And I just feel like it has made me so hyper aware of, yeah, the second money gets involved in something, I don't think it ruins it, but it gets so much more complicated. And there’s so much less risk, especially now when it feels like there's so much less money for creative stuff.
It also feels like they're shooting themselves in the foot. I mentioned obviously the gentleman from Even Stevens earlier. But one of the first DCOMs that you wrote about in here is Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century. And that's where they got Raven-Symoné from. And then Raven-Symoné would spend the next three decades minting money for Disney across the show, and then even on The View years later. And it's just like, if they're pulling the ladder up and they don't have any place to discover these Raven-Symonés, that is probably bad for Disney in the long run.
Oh yeah. Oh my God, of course. It's such a horrible thing to pull back when you're nervous.
Especially these star-making shows. Something that a lot of the producers talked about was how it was so obvious when the channel was like, "Oh, these people are a star." Like, the Jonas Brothers, oh yeah. Hannah Montana, Raven-Symoné, absolutely. And they were like, "It's so interesting to watch," but now it's like... I think Zendaya maybe was the last Disney Channel star. She's Disney Channel?
That sounds right.
But now it's like they’ve got to be using some of the same actors, but I have no idea who they are.
Yeah. Well, thanks again for coming on. I suppose, where can folks find you, find your work? What interests you these days?
Yeah, I work for Morning Brew. I write the Daily Newsletter. I'm still on Twitter and Instagram, just posting about nothing, and that's the biggest thing. Oh, I'm doing a play version of Talladega Nights in Chicago. That's probably not even that—
No, say more, say so much more. What?
I'm doing a play version of Talladega Nights. It's exactly as it sounds, in a dirty little punk venue in Chicago.
Where can people buy tickets?
You can't buy tickets out of town, you have to show up. It's called Bricktown, and it's like a secret punk venue. People will know. And if they don't, they can find me on Instagram and DM me and I will give them the address.
Absolutely. That sounds phenomenal. Thank you so much for coming on.
Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.