High School Musical's (HSM) third instalment lived up to its billing as the right film for the right time: pure escapism in a global recession.

High School Musical 3: Senior Year
set a new opening record for a musical in the US with a three-day debut of $42m. Internationally, it opened number one in 22 countries with a new October opening weekend record of $40m, led by $13.5m in the UK, $6m in Germany, $5m in Spain, $4.3m in France and $3.7m across Scandinavia.

But the notion HSM was lucky with its timing misses the real story of a movie that sets new standards in the creation and exploitation of franchises.

Any parents of pre-teen and young teenagers will be aware of how much the franchise has become a big part of their children's lives. HSM is a genuinely multimedia brand built through the music, television programme, stage shows and highly advanced merchandising.

Disney has worked the trick before in music, with The Mickey Mouse Club producing superstars Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake in the early 1990s. Each became a brand in his or her own right.

But the fact this, the third instalment of HSM, should be the first to launch theatrically points to where brand-building may go.

That loving feeling

It is no surprise film critics have been sharpening the knives for their first chance to review an HSM musical (though it has unlikely fans too). It is just as unsurprising that box office success has marched on regardless.

There are reasons for this. First, the franchise's fans - and there are millions - are in love with the brand and more are following. 'Younger kids are now coming into the film and they're joining those that have grown up with it,' says Mark Zoradi, president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Group.

Equally importantly is that the brand fits with Disney's stated aim to provide children's films to which no parent could find reason to object. One might reasonably make an argument as an adult about the anodyne content but one struggles to find objective reasons for hating it: it is full of empowered boys and girls, it is multiracial and makes the geeks as cool as the jocks.

A funny sketch on the satirical podcast The Onion has Disney growing the young stars in laboratory test tubes but the show is beyond satire. And Disney has left nothing to chance in growing a global brand: the stars toured the world in support of the brand before the launch this weekend.

What's more, the company has launched local-language versions of the show which has further deepened the fanbase.

'No-one knew it would become the phenomenon it is when the first High School Musical was launched in 2006,' says Zoradi.

But the relationship between the Disney Channel and the other arms of the studio have allowed it to grow.

'There are only a couple of franchises at this level, the other being Pirates Of The Caribbean,' he says, and it is no surprise Pirates, which started life as a theme-park ride, had a similar genesis outside the feature-film production arena.


Where the studio clearly has it right is in the close relationship between the different media arms and theme parks to achieve what Zoradi calls 'cross-collateralisation'.

Franchises are reaching a critical stage, with the number of brands that have global resonance coming close to exhaustion. It is difficult to think of too many world-famous novels, comic books and television programmes that have not already been thoroughly explored. Indeed, there are brands where sequels look close to the end of the road. But the muscle of the Disney Channel is already working on new possibilities.

HSM itself is already heading for a fourth instalment and, although the current stars have now graduated, new ones may well follow. Another Disney Channel star, Miley Cyrus, has already been a big-screen hit with her Hannah Montana character in a 3D concert film. And new series - notably Camp Rock - harbour ambitions, though Zoradi says no-one is being 'presumptuous' about success.

The building of multimedia, global franchise brands, however, is a skill Disney believes can be further developed. It may not be everyone's cup of cola, but the numbers for HSM suggest they are working on fertile ground.