Disney drags the beach blanket back out
June 27, 2013 10:50 AM

LOS ANGELES — Next month Disney Channel’s young viewers will be introduced to a movie genre — the beach party film — that hasn’t been popular since their grandparents were teenagers.

“Teen Beach Movie” has a kooky plot twist and will get a marketing push on par with the one Disney gave to the hugely successful “High School Musical” series. But will Disney’s efforts result in a franchise-spawning hit? Or will “Teen Beach Movie” and its surfing, singing, super-silly characters end up, well, high and dry?

“We will find out,” said a laughing Gary Marsh, president of Disney Channels Worldwide. “We’re certainly rolling the dice to some degree.”

The beach party film occupies a particularly dusty corner of the Hollywood curiosity cabinet. Movies like “Beach Blanket Bingo,” “Gidget” and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” surged from 1959 to the mid-1960s, driven by a post-war fascination with California and the growing power of young ticket buyers. But then the party abruptly ended as social change engulfed moviegoers, shifting their taste in films.

“With all of the social upheaval, these films became impossible to sell by about 1970,” explained Jeanine Basinger, the chairwoman of Wesleyan University’s film studies department. “The wholesome, innocent, endless summers became utterly unrelatable.”

Relatability is a paramount concern in children’s entertainment. But Disney Channel is betting that kids will see “Teen Beach Movie” as a fresh take on the musical format. Marsh has already served up break-into-song movies (“High School Musical” and its sequels) and performance-based films, including “Lemonade Mouth” and, to some degree, “Camp Rock.”

“I challenged everybody internally to find a different way to do a musical,” Marsh said. “I wanted a reinvention of the musical form.”

He got it and then some. In “Teen Beach Movie,” two modern adolescents are transported into “Wet Side Story,” an over-the-top 1962 tale of surfers versus bikers. The characters from the film within the film — Tanner, Butchy, Seacat, Cheechee, Giggles, Lugnut and Struts — welcome the interlopers.

But the modern visitors inadvertently change the plot, complicating any hope of escape. (“Oh, bonkers!”)

Multiplex efforts to reinvent the beach party genre over the years have sputtered. The independent film “Monster Beach Party” gave it a whirl in 2009 but took in a grand total of $112,791 at the box office. “Summer Catch,” which tried to recapture the beach spirit without the singing, was a bust in 2001, costing $45 million to make and selling about $26 million in tickets, after adjusting for inflation.

The last full-on beach party film a big studio tried was “Back to the Beach,” a Paramount release in 1987 that took in a modest $27 million.

Disney Channel’s immediate goal with “Teen Beach Movie” is to win big ratings and sell DVDs. If the film strikes a cultural chord like “High School Musical,” which became a $1 billion franchise (including CDs, clothing lines, theme park extensions and local stage shows), all the better.

“Teen Beach Movie,” which will premiere July 19, is a nod to Disney’s distant past: Annette Funicello, of course, started as a Mouseketeer before teaming with Frankie Avalon in 1963 for “Beach Party,” which led to several follow-up films, including “Beach Blanket Bingo” in 1965.

That tie-in is likely to be lost on Disney’s young viewers, but they may spot another connection: Garrett Clayton, who plays the heartthrob Tanner, a “mannequin with six rows of teeth,” in the words of one character, bears a striking resemblance to Zac Efron, who formed the gooey center of “High School Musical.” Ross Lynch and Maia Mitchell star as the modern teenagers.

Marsh thinks Disney Channel viewers ages 6 to 14 will be able to relate to “Teen Beach Movie,” partly because of its similarities to “Grease,” the enduringly popular 1978 musical about high school life in the ’50s. An important scene in “Teen Beach Movie” takes place at a slumber party, just as one in “Grease” does.

“Teen Beach Movie” also comes with empowered modern girls who bristle at the antiquated views on gender roles in “Wet Side Story.” Rolling her eyes at the boy-crazy antics of one of the girls in “Wet Side Story,” Mitchell’s character asks, “Why does she need a boy to be happy?” (The answer: “Because it’s 1962.”)

“Disney, contrary to what you might think, is open to a wide variety of pitches,” said Vince Marcello, one of the writers of the movie.

“People told me not to even bring this idea to Disney. They said it was too out there for Disney.”

Disney is backing its latest musical confection with a particularly hefty marketing campaign.

The company started promoting the movie with TV commercials on New Year’s Eve. Cast members recently started crisscrossing the country on a mall tour. There have been promotions at Typhoon Lagoon, a Disney World water park, and at One Direction concerts.

“Teen Beach Movie” was assembled by a creative team as wacky as the film itself. Marcello’s only previous movie writing experience was a short student film, “Zombie Prom.” (It was based on the off-Broadway show of the same title.) Another “Teen Beach Movie” writer, Robert Horn, got his start writing on the television series “Designing Women.”

The movie’s director, Jeffrey Hornaday, also started his career with campy 1980s entertainment, providing choreography for movies including “Flashdance” and “Romancing the Stone.” But the retro costumes were designed by Ruth E. Carter, best known for her Oscar-nominated work on serious films like “Amistad” and “Malcolm X.”

“The mantra was, ‘Let’s go as absolutely over the top as we can go,” said Hornaday, who previously directed a Disney Channel movie called “Geek Charming.” “I wanted big Busby Berkeley overhead shots — the works.”

He added, “Nobody remembers what these beach party movies really looked like anyway.”

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