Hollywood woke up this past week with a case of whiplash. Sure, everyone with a child -- particularly a girl child -- has had some awareness of High School Musical Mania, generally lumping it in with Hannah Montana-mania, Cheetah Girls-mania and Webkinz-mania, tween phenomenons that have evoked passionate devotion among their followers. For grown-ups and groovsters, those fads exist in an alternate pop culture universe, profitable for sure but without the global panache of more muscular, older-skewing brands such as "Spider-Man" and "Harry Potter." But the sheer numbers of "High School Musical 2's" opening weekend audience -- 33 million -- has reverberated around town . . . aahhh, if only each of those viewers were paying $10 apiece. And then there are the 5 million or so audience members who've tuned into the first "High School Musical" every one of the 24 times it has aired on the Disney Channel.
For better or worse, Efron, he of the swivel hips and evaporating eyebrows, is the breakout star. The guy who just a few weeks ago wouldn't be on any casting director's short list has suddenly zoomed into the rarefied climes of Emile Hirsch and James McAvoy, right behind the king of the 20-year-old set, Shia LaBeouf, star of "Transformers" and Steven Spielberg's designated "It" boy. LaBeouf's asking price is already in the range of $8 million to $10 million. An eclectic cross-section of Hollywood insiders think Efron should get a cool $5 million for "High School Musical 3," the theatrical version of the franchise, which Disney is hoping to make prestrike -- i.e., in the next nine months, before a possible Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild strike shuts down Hollywood.
Efron declined to comment for this article, and although contract negotiations still are ongoing, sources say Efron is being offered a salary closer to $3 million, not $5 million, for the follow-up, which focuses on senior year at East High. Whatever the price, he's still perceived as a steal.
'He's the reason'
"Because without him, they don't have a movie," says one top talent agent who doesn't work at CAA, home to Efron's management team. "He's the reason why they're going to sell tickets for the opening weekend. That's a bargain even at $5 million, just for DVD sales alone. Plus they owe it to him."
"Zac was generally the star of 'High School Musical 2.' He drove the story, and he clearly drove the movie alongside Ashley [Tisdale] and Vanessa [Hudgens]. He's the BMOC. If there is a first among equals, I would say that Zac would be that," says Richard Ross, president of the Disney Channel, though he adds, "It's very much an ensemble. Zac would be the first to say it himself. One of the magical factors is that there is a tremendous relationship among the cast that developed on the first movie and was maintained on the second."
Efron, who has a stack of offers on the table, is also slated to do the comedy "Seventeen," for New Line, a kind of spin on "Big" or "Back to the Future," in which a 38-year-old becomes young again and attends his school -- with his own children. "Hairspray" director Adam Shankman, who's producing, developed it specifically for him, and Efron's salary, according to one studio source, is slightly less than $1 million.
He is also attached to the remake of "Footloose," which in its previous incarnation featured Kevin Bacon. Another project chasing him is "Bridge and Tunnel," written by Greg Berlanti and to be produced by Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal.
According to sources, Efron received only about $100,000 for his role as teen idol Link Larkin in "Hairspray," and director Shankman, now his biggest booster, didn't even know who Efron was when he auditioned last February.
Shankman and producer Craig Zadan and his producing partner, Neil Meron, credit Efron with bringing in much of the film's repeat business, the tween girls who have driven its box office take to more than $104 million in the United States.
"In a land of spectacular young male future-star flameouts, Zac's been a nice surprise for the business and moviegoers," adds producer J.C. Spink, who has made such films as "Monster-in-Law" and TV shows such as the Disney hit "Kyle XY." "Since I got here in '97, celebrity culture has shifted tremendously -- people have gotten to be stars before they've had the chance to act, and the level of flameouts ... " he says with a groan.
Enjoy it while ...
Indeed, in the last couple of years, Hollywood has embraced and then quickly let go of such talents as Orlando Bloom, Josh Hartnett and Paul Walker.
Although Efron might currently grace the cover of Rolling Stone as America's heartthrob, Luke Perry once garnered the cover of Vanity Fair in a photo by Annie Liebowitz. That was before Perry's movie career sputtered out with "8 Seconds."
Conquering the 'cute factor'
Although there are plenty willing to get into the Zac Efron business, many others wonder whether the quality that draws the teeny-boppers -- the kind of androgynous cute factor -- will be exactly what prevents Efron from broadening his fan base to include boys and men. Almost all great stars appeal to men and women.
Others ask more bluntly: Does he have the acting chops to transcend teeny-bopper adulation? Leonardo DiCaprio's teen fan base helped drive "Titanic" to become the highest-grossing film of all time, but the young star had already earned an Academy Award nomination for "What's Eating Gilbert Grape." Johnny Depp had a patron in quirky director Tim Burton, who put him in movies such as "Edward Scissorhands" that allowed him to establish his cool credentials.
But Disney's Ross is less convinced that Efron needs to rough up his image with an indie film to expand his audience cred.
"History has shown a path where you have to go to this dark place to be able to show that you're an adult actor. That's been the case for a lot of actors. Maybe that's the case for him, but Zac has created such a fan base that people will go many places with him."
But for Efron, the teen from Arroyo Grande, Calif., who just two years ago was being driven to auditions by his mother, the moment is now.
"He's going up, up, up," says casting director Joseph Middleton, who once cast Efron in a pilot for director Doug Liman. "You're going to have those directors for whom he's going to have to prove himself. He may not be offered the part, but he will have the opportunity to read for the part, and he's a really good actor."