Underage advantage for showbiz kids

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MORE SHOWBIZ KIDS COVERAGE:
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IN ON THE ACT: Acting coaches on working with kids

Reaching the pinnacle of the entertainment industry is anything but child's play. But these days, being under 18 might be one of the biggest advantages a Hollywood talent could have.

With family-oriented films like Disney's "The Game Plan" trouncing adult dramas like Universal's "The Kingdom" for the No. 1 spot at the boxoffice and Disney Channel's "Hannah Montana" star Miley Cyrus scoring two No. 1 albums in under a year, minors are becoming the new majors in television, film and music.

"Clearly, the conservatism in the last decade in this country has played into the entertainment industry," says Mitchell Gossett, director of the youth division at Cunningham Escott Slevin Doherty and the agent of Cyrus and "Game Plan" star Madison Pettis. "There are a lot of interests in family values and entertainment for the family, and the result is that these actors have an audience that value their work. Compared to 10 years ago, it's much easier to set up a project around a young star." Adds Nickelodeon senior vp talent Paula Kaplan, "With the expansion of the outlets on cable, Hollywood is realizing that family business is big business. Emma Roberts (star of Nickelodeon hit 'Unfabulous') can open a movie (Warner Bros.' 'Nancy Drew') now."

And unlike when her Aunt Julia was breaking into features, Roberts is arriving at the cineplex with a legion of adoring fans. Twenty-eight-year-old Nickelodeon is piped in to more than 96 million homes. Only a decade ago, Disney Channel was a premium cable channel in 20 million homes. Now, it's included at no extra charge in most cable packages and broadcast in 94 million homes, or 95% of all audiences. By starting on one of these channels' shows and then taking advantage of the opportunities offered by their parent companies, child stars can infiltrate every other arena -- and fast.

"It's a linear platform," explains Gary Marsh, Disney Channel president of entertainment, worldwide. With someone like Pettis, who appears on the net's "Cory in the House," "there are nearly daily and transparent communications between the channel, the studio, Radio Disney, our record group, and our talent and marketing teams," he says. "There's a ramp we travel with these stars that amplifies their marketability through time and exposure, and multiplies the power they have."

"There are tremendous launching pads available now that didn't exist five years ago," adds David Markman, an attorney at Greenberg Traurig whose clients include Dylan and Cole Sprouse, stars of Disney Channel's "The Suite Life of Zack & Cody." "Disney and Nickelodeon can almost decide who they're going to launch this month."

One of the crucial shifts driving these launches is the Internet, where fans can "interact" with their idols with an intimacy and immediacy unknown a decade ago. "The new media step here is with MySpace, where someone now considers themselves a 'friend' to any of these people," Markham says. Kids want what their friends have to offer, whether it's reading Cyrus' Web diary, downloading ringtones from Keke Palmer's new album from her Web site or sending in videos to Nickelodeon's interactive "iCarly," starring Miranda Cosgrove, to be considered for a guest appearance on the show. And merchandise is available everywhere -- from tie-in albums to notebooks to clothing lines. As Marsh says, "Great content drives great demand."

Which can create great demand on young stars now expected to be entrepreneurs and personalities as well as actors. "It's definitely something we talk to our kids about," says Kaplan. "More is required of them than used to be, definitely. Everybody is now looking at talent from a 360 perspective versus just a television perspective. Is there a movie opportunity? A music opportunity? What's the digital space?"

To help the actors deal with the pressure, Nickelodeon has an in-house department offering media training, and the Osbrink Agency opened an in-house publicity department five years ago. "It's not just about doing the film anymore," explains Cindy Osbrink, who represents Dakota Fanning, among others. "There's a side of the business, from public appearances to red carpets, that didn't exist five years ago. Before, you simply opened a movie and moved on to the next one. Now, it's about the total package."

The Hollywood Reporter has a package of its own -- our first list of the Top 25 Showbiz Kids in entertainment. Based on a number of factors, including experience and project success at the boxoffice or in the Nielsen ratings (the Nielsen Co. is the corporate parent of The Hollywood Reporter), what follows is a list of young performers who take their jobs seriously -- and are seriously good at what they do.   
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