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With this past weekend’s $23.7 million opening of “17 Again,” Zac Efron has taken his first successful step toward carving out a career beyond the “High School Musical” franchise that shot him to popularity.
Now he faces the even-trickier prospect of building on that momentum as he plots his next move.
“I’m looking very carefully at the movies being offered,” Efron said last week on the eve of “17’s” bow. “It’s about taking my fan base with me but then doing movies that open me up to a broader level.”
To that end, “17” could be considered a cinematic bar mitzvah of sorts: The 21-year-old actor proved that he is more than just another pretty boy and that he could be on the verge of becoming a young leading man.
Certainly, some in Hollywood are rooting for him. With such A-listers as Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp well into their 40s and Matt Damon and Ben Affleck moving through their 30s, the industry is hungrily looking for new matinee idols to replenish its stock.
Just a few years ago, Efron was scoring parts like “Pizza Delivery Guy” in the pilot for the short-lived NBC series “Heist,” but when “HSM” exploded — first on Disney Channel then as a theatrical spinoff in October — Efron showed a talent for winning over the hearts of young girls.
The question now is: Because a tween following doesn’t make for career longevity, can he take it further than that? Can he parlay his singing and dancing abilities into a full-fledged career as John Travolta has?
“17,” one in a long line of body-swapping comedies — older guy Matthew Perry re-experiences high school in the guise of Efron — hardly was designed to please persnickety critics. But a few have come forward to compliment the young actor.
“Though Efron’s acting range is limited, he has a genial charm and decent comic timing,” Claudia Puig wrote in USA Today. Added Stephanie Zacharek at Salon.com, “and he appears not to be hung up on his looks — he talks and moves like a guy who knows he’s had an extraordinary stroke of good luck and nothing more.”
Said Adam Shankman, who directed Efron in a supporting role in 2007’s “Hairspray” and produced “17,” “I think every once in awhile, a game-changer comes along, and I think Zac is a game-changer.”
Jennifer Gibgot, who also produced “17,” said Efron’s potential could been seen during the making of “Hairspray.”
“The dailies were the impetus for this movie,” she said. “We saw them and started calling New Line saying, ‘We need to develop a movie for this kid, he’s a star.’ “
As if taking his cues from Cruise and Will Smith, known for their nonstop efforts to promote their movies by meeting with fans and media around the world, Efron didn’t stop working when principal photography wrapped; he took an active role in the movie’s promotion.
He worked the talk show circuit, made a detour through London and hosted “Saturday Night Live.” He maintained his composure on “The Today Show,” when Kathy Lee Gifford made a surprise appearance to pretend to berate him for impersonating her son Cody on “SNL.”
Efron was just as active behind the scenes, showing up for marketing meetings on the Warners lot, much to the surprise of those in attendance.
“One day he was just … there,” remarked one exec who attended those meetings. “What actor does that?”
An actor that has a lot to lose and much to gain, that’s who. With “17,” Efron’s goal was to demonstrate he could graduate beyond “HSM” while still remaining within the comfort zone of a high school milieu while he honed his craft.
“(Director) Burr Steers and Zac worked very hard to break that Disney style of acting,” said the film’s Leslie Mann. “Burr was trying to teach him about method acting and going a little deeper.”
Efron’s next moves could be tricky, though. If he jumps into something too risky, he could alienate the younger audience that he has cultivated. But if he opts for something too bland or repeats himself, he may fail to develop a larger following while also losing the fickle tweens along the way.
Efron has one film awaiting release, the indie movie “Me and Orson Welles,” in which he plays a teen who encounters the formidable Welles back in the ’30s, but that movie won’t have mainstream impact.
The actor recently backed out of “Footloose,” a movie that would have seen him once again dancing his way through high school.
However, he’s met with Warners president Alan Horn over dinner, and they discussed a film version of the animated TV series “Jonny Quest.” And he’s also met with Mandalay about an adaptation of the Japanese manga “Full Metal Panic.”
There has also been talk of a film version of Ben Sherwood’s “The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud,” the story of a cemetery caretaker who communes with his dead brother, which is set up at Universal and would reunite Efron with Steers.
One key consideration as Efron moves forward: At the moment, he may have younger women in his hip pocket, but he also needs to prove that he can win over a guy audience.
Still, Efron has some time to grow into the leading man that many in Hollywood are hoping he becomes.
Cruise, for example, had a breakthrough role in 1983’s “Risky Business,” which grabbed a solid female audience, but it wasn’t until three years later, with “Top Gun,” that he soared to blockbuster status.
To borrow from one of Cruise’s transitional movies, Efron right now is looking to make all the right moves.
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