After His Success With ‘High School Musical’ & ‘The Descendants,’ Kenny Ortega Hopes to Strike Again at Netflix

Before the pandemic, Kenny Ortega was hard at work on a new series about a teenage girl who rediscovers her passion for music when she starts a band with three ghosts from the past. As Ortega was reviewing a scene, something struck him as oddly familiar.

“For years and years and years, people have been asking why I’m not doing a ‘Hocus Pocus’ sequel,” Ortega says, referring to his cult classic film that starred Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker. “I think Bette and Kathy and Sarah and I have all asked that question and wondered ourselves. And while I was in post-production before the quarantine, I was looking at the monitor at ‘Julie and the Phantoms,’ and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this has a little bit of ‘Hocus Pocus’ running through it.” 

With musical dance numbers, humor, larger-than-life fantastical storylines and, yes, ghosts, “Julie and the Phantoms” might appear to be a mashup of some of Ortega’s greatest hits, like that 1993 Halloween flick, the “Descendants” trilogy and “High School Musical.”

“I do bring a lot of my history into my work,” Ortega says. “I love the background of my life. I fell in love with musical theater, so the fact that there’s a connection here to other parts of my work is not a surprise to me, but I also think it stands on its own feet.”

“Julie and the Phantoms” is Ortega’s first project set up at Netflix, coming roughly one year after he entered into a multiyear overall deal with the streaming giant; previously he created the two biggest tween franchises in television history at the Disney Channel.

Ortega started as a stage actor before becoming one of the most sought-after choreographers in the world, working with Michael Jackson, Cher, Gloria Estefan and Madonna (on “Material Girl”), then parlaying that into film as a collaborator with John Hughes on “Pretty in Pink” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” along with “Dirty Dancing.” His directorial debut came in the early ’90s with the musical “Newsies” for Disney, which would become the longtime home for what he’s synonymous with today: creating pop culture phenomena that define young generations. 

Looking to break further into kids and family programming, Netflix scooped up Ortega, and with the kingmaker of the tween genre under a rich overall deal, the streaming giant believes it will have a hit on its hands with “Julie and the Phantoms.”

“It’s got all the elements of something that can really break out, and it’s a really big swing for our team,” says Jane Wiseman, Netflix’s VP of original series. “Kenny is best in class.”

Step one in creating “Julie and the Phantoms,” which is based on a Brazilian series of the same name, was finding the titular star. Ortega knew he wanted to cast raw, unknown talent.

“He is so good at discovering people and making stars,” Wiseman says.

Ortega’s team set out on a wide-ranging search across the United States and Canada. The initial effort brought about a handful of girls who impressed Ortega, but he didn’t find his Julie. The search continued, with his casting cohorts sending more than 1,000 letters to high schools of the performing arts across North America. That’s how Ortega discovered Madison Reyes.

“They called me in one afternoon, and they said, ‘Kenny, sit down. We think we found her,’” Ortega recalls. “They did this with Zac,” he adds — as in Efron, who became a household name after Ortega cast him as Troy Bolton in “High School Musical.”

“I pushed ‘play,’ and there was this little 14-year-old girl that had never done a self-tape before, never worked professionally, had never performed in front of a camera, and she was just so authentic and vivacious,” Ortega says.

Reyes was so green, she didn’t know someone would read with her, so she memorized every single character’s lines. She dug out her electronic piano from her bedroom, brought it onto her porch in Allentown, Pa., and sang a ballad from the musical “Waitress.” Ortega called Reyes’ home and informed her father, Ricardo, that he wanted to fly his daughter out to test for the lead role. On that call, he gave Reyes one piece of advice, which was to stay true to herself. 

“I said to Madison, ‘Make sure that you pack that girl from Allentown before you pack anything else,’” Ortega says. “She said, ‘Mr. Ortega, I’m packing Brooklyn because that’s where I’m from.’”

Before setting eyes on Reyes, Ortega knew he wanted a Latinx lead. He’s also proud that much of the behind-the-camera crew on the series is diverse. 

Long before inclusive casting was a priority across networks — and long before he was a big enough name to call the shots — Ortega was a loud voice in every room, promoting representation in entertainment. In early 2006, “High School Musical” showcased a diverse group of young stars, with half the core cast being people of color. 

“I was given an awful lot of creative freedom at the Disney Channel — I really was. And I’ve been given creative freedom as a choreographer for a long time. But not at the beginning,” Ortega says, sharing a memory from a moment when he put together a massive cast of dancers for a major network television special.

“One of the executives walked up to me at one of my rehearsals in a giant soundstage and said, ‘Your ensemble is a little dark,’” Ortega says. “I looked up, and above the stage were like 2,000 lights, and I said, ‘Why don’t you just turn more lights on?’”

While broadcast and even cable networks have been slower to showcase diverse faces in lead roles over recent years, streaming services like Netflix seem to be ahead of the curve.

“Kenny brings that eye toward inclusion and diversity,” Wiseman says. “We know that there is not just one type of family, so what we want is for kids to see their lives reflected on-screen. That was a big reason why we wanted Kenny in our family.”

Ortega is among an impressive string of content creators, from Ryan Murphy to Shonda Rhimes, who have jumped to Netflix recently. While those TV power players had already found great success in specific styles that defined their franchises, the streamer offered a wide range of programming opportunities and creative flexibility. 

For Ortega, best known for his musical abilities and teen hits, Netflix afforded the chance to evolve across different spaces, though his first two projects are tuners. After “Julie and the Phantoms,” his next production is a musical film adaptation of the “Auntie Claus” children’s book series.

“He dances while you’re talking to him, and he’s always singing a tune,” Wiseman says of Ortega with a laugh. “It does feel like music is a part of him, but we want to give him the opportunity to branch out.”

Ortega says all of his current projects at Netflix are rooted in music: “It just makes me happy. It excites me to wake up in the morning to know that I’m going to say, ‘Playback!’ 

“But to be invited into a company where they would consider my ideas for animation, features, series, family and kids was really exciting and something new,” he says, adding that he has a number of ideas he hasn’t brought to Netflix yet but is developing at his own company. 

For now, the focus is on “Julie.” Netflix had originally targeted a late summer or early fall premiere, but the launch was slightly delayed due to the coronavirus crisis, as the team behind the show was working in post-production from their homes and the series had to be dubbed in numerous languages for its global rollout.

“I’m really excited about it, especially now that we’ve all been sent home for such a long period of time,” Ortega says of launching the show amid the pandemic, during which time Netflix’s stock has skyrocketed. “I think there is something in the spirit with ‘Julie’ that is refreshing.”

Should the first season garner an audience, Ortega has plans for a second. He says his head writers have been sketching out ideas for what the next installments could look like, and the actors have been working on new original music. 

Ortega has an impressive track record when it comes to turning TV franchises into lucrative branding properties. “High School Musical” has the top soundtrack in television history, selling more than 5 million copies and reaching quadruple-platinum certification in multiple territories. When “The Descendants” aired, it was the fifth-most-watched cable TV movie of all time; it has brought in more than a billion views on Disney’s YouTube channel and been merchandised into practically anything a kid could wear, including best-selling Halloween costumes.

Given the pandemic, there are no current plans for touring, according to Wiseman, who says the company’s initial focus is to ensure the show is watched and the music heard in households everywhere. But she says a tour would be the “cherry on top.” Ortega, too, says he has high hopes “Julie and the Phantoms” can become a touring group.

Now that he’s with Netflix, Ortega isn’t sure how to respond when asked if streaming is the future of content. “Honestly, I don’t know. Streaming has become very powerful, and I enjoy the ability to be able to binge, but I do switch over to network,” he says.

However, noting breakout hits like “13 Reasons Why” and “Stranger Things,” Ortega is confident about Netflix’s unique global reach and word-of-mouth. 

 “If you see something and you’re moved by it, you pick up the phone and call your buddy and they can watch it right now — they don’t have to wait for the next episode in a week,” he says. “This library is constantly available for you, and I think that can really turn a show into an overnight massive success.” 

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