For Healy, Movie-Making Is Child's Play
Disney executive has a way of finding longform programs that score with kids
By Allison Romano -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/16/2008 7:00:00 PM
With runaway hit movies Camp Rock and the High School Musical series to his credit, Disney Channel's Senior VP of Original Movies Michael Healy is at the top of his game programming telepics for kids and tweens.
Of course, those are the brightest lights, but in 11 years at Disney, Healy has shepherded more than 75 movies. Each one qualifies as a success, Healy says, if it connects with Disney's audience.
“We try to make movies that will not only entertain kids but speak to their lives,” he says. “They are fables of identity. If kids dig it, they will watch it again and again.”
Healy's track record is widely respected within the Disney family. “Michael's greatest accomplishment is the creation of the Disney Channel Original Movie brand,” says Gary Marsh, president of entertainment for Disney Channels Worldwide. “To kids and families around the globe, it represents the pinnacle of family filmmaking.”
Some of Healy's own favorites, in fact, are not the network's best-known. For example, he is proud of the network's acclaimed Color of Friendship, about a white South African girl who in 1976 goes to live with a black politician and his family in Washington, D.C.; the movie won an Emmy Award. “There were grounds for a good sitcom with a lot of meaning underneath, and it was a way of approaching a tough subject—apartheid—in a way kids could relate to,” he explains.
Healy is equally proud of last year's Minutemen, about three misfits who travel back in time to smooth over unpleasant situations for other picked-on kids, like getting better clothes for a boy who is teased by peers for the way he dresses. “We did a movie about bullying without preaching or being violent,” Healy says. It wasn't a huge ratings grabber, but the movie repeats very well, helping amortize costs and grossing a larger audience, he adds.
Social and emotional themes are the backbone of most TV movies. In three decades in the TV-movie business, Healy has developed a knack for striking a chord with audiences.
As a student at Buffalo's Canisius College, Healy was attracted more to theatricals, working at a local art-house theater. After earning a master's of arts from Harvard University, he returned to Buffalo, his hometown, to work as a film critic for the Courier-Express. He also tried his hand at screenplays and movie-making, producing a small independent movie, Vamping, about a struggling jazz musician in Buffalo starring former Dallas heartthrob Patrick Duffy.
Healy continued on in newspapers, as a film critic for The Denver Post and later The Daily News of Los Angeles. In California, he reconnected with an old friend, Gregg Maday, who was running Warner Bros. Television's made-for-TV movie division and convinced Healy to try television.
Healy joined Warner Bros. in 1988 as the director of development for movies for television and miniseries, pitching projects to broadcast and cable networks. It was the heyday of TV movies, when CBS was airing 100 films per year and NBC ran about 50 movies and miniseries. Among Healy's favorite projects was the film Heart of Darkness, which he sold to HBO, and adaptations of several Dean Koontz thrillers.
While Healy didn't fit the audience profile for TV movies—typically older, female viewers—he says he quickly learned the ingredients for a good movie: “You needed a concept that was good enough to keep people enthralled for 90 minutes and the right casting. It couldn't be too out there or too scary....These were TV comfort food.”
In 1992, Healy moved on to CBS as director of movies for television. After several years selling to the networks, he relished being a buyer. CBS was a top destination for TV movies, and Healy had his pick of good projects.
Over time, however, TV movies were slowly edged out on network schedules as drama series gained popularity. Series like Law & Order and CSI burst on the scene, with riveting storylines and attractive casts that came back weekly.
“With TV movies, you have to let everyone know about it and when it will be on, or you're cooked,” Healy explains. “You don't get a second chance. With a series, you get to come back week after week and you can build on your success.”
In 1997, Marsh approached Healy to head up Disney's fledgling movie unit. Disney aspired to produce about a dozen movies per year and Healy, whose two children were elementary-school age at the time, was attracted to the opportunity to craft telepics for a younger audience.
“There was almost nothing out there for kids about kids' issues with kids in the leads,” he says. “We wanted movies that weren't just good for you but entertaining.”
In the years since, Healy has built a portfolio of hits, including a few blockbusters such as High School Musical. “That is the kind of hit that comes along once in your life, if you're lucky,” he says. “No one dreamed it would be this big.”
“After 75 [Disney Channel] movies, the greatest challenge for Michael and his team is to re-imagine the storytelling process,” Marsh says. After musicals such as High School Musical, its sequel High School Musical 2 and Camp Rock hit big, he adds, “Michael's challenge is to find that next big breakthrough idea.”
That is a tall order with Disney's fickle young demographic. Kids' and tweens' tastes seem to change by the minute, and new technology constantly threatens to lure them away from the TV.
Healy says his team stays fresh by finding writers and producers who understand kids' issues and speak to them authentically. And, of course, casting attractive young stars doesn't hurt either. “Finding the kids' voices that they can relate to is what we depend on picture after picture,” he says.
His boss is confident Healy will accomplish that goal. As Marsh puts it: “Michael is quite simply one of the most brilliant storytellers I've ever worked with.”
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