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Disney Channel Hits a Movie Milestone

Disney Channel will launch its milestone 100th original movie on Friday (June 24, with the premiere of Adventures in Babysitting. The ratings success of the Disney Channel’s original movies (or, as the network calls them, DCOMs) — Disney movies represent top four most-watched movies in cable history — have helped define the network’s brand for a generation of viewers, and has helped the programmer court a new, younger generation on both linear and digital platforms.

Disney’s original movies have served as a launchpad for a who’s who of today’s entertainment stars, from singer Demi Lovato (Camp Rock); to actress and talk-show host Raven-Symoné (The Cheetah Girls) and actresssinger Selena Gomez (Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie). Paul DeBenedittis, senior vice president of programming strategy for Disney Channels Worldwide, spoke to Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about the DCOM franchise and its influence on the Disney Channel brand.

MCN:While most cable networks have built their brand on the backs of reality and scripted content, why did you feel original movies — along with scripted shows — were the best way to reach your audience?

Paul DeBenedittis: Not many networks were doing original movies back then, and frankly not many networks are doing them right now. For us, we treat the movies as mini-tentpoles. They are tentpoles for kids and families and, to some degree, they become part of pop culture for this generation. What we’re experiencing from the DCOM 100th celebration is that the movies are a pop cultural moment for many millennials who came to the channel over the Memorial Day weekend stunt to watch their favorite movies and relive their childhood moments with a sense of warmth and admiration love and affinity. We’re excited that the 100th DCOM at the end of the month is going to continue in that tradition.

MCN:Was there a seminal movie that convinced the network that original movies could serve as that event tentpole that you described?

PD: It feels like every couple of years throughout the DCOM journey there’s been that defining title among the 100 that has just captured the audience’s hearts and souls and became a part of that pop culture. I think Zenon was one many years ago; High School Musical was that one that I think people saw it, loved it and felt the momentum from it. I don’t think anyone predicted it would reach the phenomenal success that it had, but everyone knew there was something really special and magical. Teen Beach [Movie] became that next one, and just last year Descendants became this generation’s key DCOM.

MCN:So what is the secret sauce with regards to Disney’s original movie success?

PD: I would say it’s really special scripts and story, and music plays a key driver in its success. Finally, it’s about talent — you can have all of the previous ingredients, but without talent that captures and drives that story you won’t have that phenomenal success. We found that out in High School Musical, we saw that in Teen Beach, and certainly in Descendants.

MCN:Of all the stars that have appeared in Disney films, who do you think was the biggest star to come out of a DCOM movie?

PD: I would have to say Zac Efron (High School Musical 1 & 2). Zac for us was an iconic actor for that generation of DCOMs and has gone on to wonderful success.

MCN:How has the network used the appeal and reach of the movies to build the network’s brand beyond linear into digital platforms?

PD: As we look at all of our content, we know kids and families choose to consume content in many places, so for us, it’s using our distribution to really access that audience. For us, the movies for the past couple of years have aired on both linear and nonlinear platforms, and currently our movies, such as Adventures in Babysitting, will premiere on our app [a week before the film’s linear debut] so you will have the opportunity to watch that as you choose based on your viewing habits.

We still haven’t reached the threshold of whether or not the digital airings are siphoning off viewers — one might assume there is some level of that — but at the end of the day, we’re looking at overall reach. So if my linear and non-linear still brings me the reach I’m looking for, that’s fine. It’s all about making sure we have the access to the consumer on platforms that they’re choosing.

MCN:How do you see the future of the DCOM franchise and the original movie category in general?

PD: Movies are able to define us, so in the clutter they do stand out. For us, it’s still an important part of the puzzle and our content offerings — not just as premieres but as content that then becomes part of your on-demand experience. For us, movies really are an important ingredient. To continue beyond 100 its about finding great stories that are unique, that tell a relevant story, that audiences can find a piece of themselves in, that have lessons and offer wonderful entertainment value for kids and family.

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.