Walt Disney Studios is hoping to score a date with an audience it long has found elusive — teenage girls — with "Prom," a coming-of-age story that opens Friday.
The $8 million film, among the first to be put into production by studio Chairman Rich Ross, is a more mature take on teen life than the "High School Musical" franchise he oversaw during his tenure at Disney Channel. But in adhering to the family-friendly Disney brand, "Prom" omits the naughtier aspects of the big night, specifically drinking and sex. Some question whether this chaste portrayal will ring true with the teen audience the studio is courting.
"I think the movie will do really well, but I don't think it will reach the demographic they're aiming for," said Tina Wells, chief executive of Buzz Marketing Group, a firm that specializes in youth communications. "It will reach their little sisters."
Pre-release audience surveys reveal that "Prom" is reaching an audience of girls as young as 12, who won't be renting a limo any time soon, according to people who have seen the data but asked not to be named because the information is confidential.
Nonetheless, Disney's ambitions for "Prom" extend beyond its desire to attract the same teens that made the "Twilight" vampire series into a phenomenon. Despite the film's modest cost, Disney is hoping to lure moviegoers into buying related items, including "Prom"-inspired party dresses.
"Prom annually in the U.S. is a $6-billion business, from the limousine to the dress to the flowers," said Sean Bailey, Walt Disney Studios production president. "If we have good fortune [with the film], we will take a hard look at that [market] from our consumer products, to our publishing, to our channels, and think about where we go from here."
The International Prom Assn., a trade group based in Jefferson City, Tenn., estimates that teens will spend an average of $900 a couple on the big event.
Finding such a lucrative niche is attractive to companies in the licensing business, which are looking to enter markets that aren't already flooded with competition.
"The key is to create something that the large retailers are going to recognize as an opportunity and then fit in," said Marty Brochstein, senior vice president for the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers Assn.
But rather than unfurl the full force of the Burbank giant's powerful marketing machine on "Prom," Disney is taking more of a restrained approach, similar to its tack on the original "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie in 2003. Disney enlisted its publishing arm for a novelization of the movie, and the consumer products group licensed two of the film's gowns to Alfred Angelo, a major bridal house that also sells a line of Disney princess-inspired wedding dresses.
The bridal designer and retailer furnished its entire collection of 80 prom gowns for the movie and touts its participation with "Prom" tags that associate these formal lines with the film. The Alfred Angelo store in Brea also served as the setting for a scene in the film in which the main character, Nova, played by "Friday Night Lights" actress Aimee Teegarden, tries on dresses.
"Disney's intention was that it would hit high school kids — they definitely were looking to this to be much older-skewing than, say, "High School Musical," said Denise Wash, Alfred Angelo's marketing vice president. "The fact that it's coming out before the peak prom season — there's going to be more interest in it as well."
Prom season spans a 24-week period that begins in early March with schools in the South and continues through June, with the bulk of the dances held in early May.
Clearly the "Prom" market is alluring to Disney, but the movie has to expand beyond tweens to make the marketing tie-ins a legit business.
The squeaky-clean nature of the film could be its biggest hurdle. Modern teenagers are getting much more provocative programming with shows like Fox Network's "Glee" and NBC's "Parenthood," which deal with issues like teen pregnancy and substance abuse. Even Disney's ABC Family channel series "Pretty Little Liars" regularly focuses on more explicit subjects.
In contrast, the most scandalous scene in "Prom" is when the misunderstood bad boy played by Thomas McDonnell starts a fight outside the diner where his mom works.
"I think Prom is aspirational, but I think it's truthful too," said Bailey, who has likened the film's tone to the iconic John Hughes films of the '80s and '90s — minus the drugs and sex. "There is an audience out there that loves their 'Superbads' and 'American Pies.' We felt we could be truthful, honest and character-based and didn't have to go into that terrain."
For screenwriter Katie Wech, sticking to a PG-rated script meant never verging into controversial territory for fear that it would read false with the audience with whom she was trying to connect. She knew Disney would be comfortable dealing with issues of class and teenage angst but was well-schooled enough in the storied brand to know what wouldn't fly.
"We called it the red-Solo-cup conversation," said Wech, referring to those plastic cups often associated with keg parties. "We never wanted to have the conversation that if there is a party, there must be red Solo cups and what would be in them."
Wech is encouraged that real high schoolers are coming out to early screenings of the film. "I'm hoping this movie will reach the high school prom-going audience as much as it will the younger audience that Disney is more familiar with and has more of a relationship with," she says. "Every time I hear from a girl who looks like she has a driver's license, I'm pretty excited."