When Sara Parriott and Josann McGibbon first teamed up 32 years ago, the door had just started to crack open for female film writers.
“We came at the right time, it was right when women writers were coming into vogue,” McGibbon said. “It was the time of ‘Thelma and Louise’ and there was two of us — a blonde and a brunette and it all fell into place.”
Parriott and McGibbon’s latest project, “Descendants 2,” premieres Friday night on Disney Channel, as well as ABC, Freeform, Disney XD and Lifetime. It’s now a key franchise for Disney, and the latest career twist for Parriott and McGibbon, who now boast one of the longest-running writing partnerships in all of Hollywood.
The duo initially chose film over TV because “we felt in success we could still be at home with our kids and TV we wouldn’t see them,” McGibbon said. But there was also another reason: TV writing was still a male-dominated field back then. “They have the writers’ room,” which is still notoriously a boys’ club, she noted.
“In features, you’re mostly working with each other,” McGibbon said. “Had we been going in for muscular action movies we would have had a harder time getting in the door. We wrote more comedy and family and romantic comedy. No one was shocked to see a woman coming in or pitching those stories.”
Parriott and McGibbon quickly found success with features such as “Worth Winning,” Three Men and a Little Lady,” “Runaway Bride,” and “Chicken Little.” But as the feature world changed and studios moved away from those mid-level films, the partners finally gave TV a try.
And when they wound up developing and producing USA’s “The Starter Wife,” Parriott and McGibbon were pleasantly surprised to see how much the TV executive ranks had evolved over the years to become more gender-balanced.
“It used to be the only other women in the room were development women — called d-girls,” Parriott said of their early days in the film business. “As we got older, times changed. At USA we met with [network chief] Bonnie Hammer and she was the big cheese, which felt really good. You didn’t have to make sure you’re looking at the men because they’re the buyers. We have been in so many rooms that it’s all women and it never goes unremarked upon.”
Parriott and McGibbon later worked on “Desperate Housewives” – where they finally experienced that “writers’ room” world first hand – and then came up with the idea for “Descendants” after being approached by their former assistant, who became a development executive at Disney Channel. The idea: Tell the story of the teenage sons and daughters of Disney’s infamous villains, who are sent to school with the kids of Disney’s heroes.
The writers said they weren’t sold on writing a kids’ movie, but were ultimately attracted to the idea of writing a film for kids that was complicated and not written down for a younger generation – and focused on strong female characters. Then, “High School Musical” director Kenny Ortega joined the production, and it morphed into a larger song-and-dance production.
“I read their script and just 20 minutes in, I was off the page and in their head and in their world,” Ortega said. “They were able to create the voices of these young characters and had the imagination to take on the descendants of these iconic characters. We spent a lot of time together and they were so cooperative. They’ve got a vision. I couldn’t love working with them more.”
While “Star Wars” and Marvel projects wowed attendees at last week’s D23 convention, Disney also used the gathering to heavily tout “Descendants 2.”
For Disney Channel, it’s perhaps the biggest event of the year, and comes at a critical time for the network, which is seeing its young audience migrate to other platforms.
The original movie averaged 10.5 million viewers just on the Disney Channel (after three days of DVR and VOD time shifting), and more than a million more watched on its app. According to Disney, the movie ultimately reached more than 100 million total viewers worldwide.
The sequel is enough of a priority for the conglomerate that its bow has been scheduled as a “road block” on multiple networks: Besides Disney Channel, ABC, Disney XD, Freeform and Lifetime will also air “Descendants 2” simultaneously at 8 p.m. ET.
In spreading “Descendants 2” across several channels, Disney is aiming to expose the movie across a wide demographic swath and promote co-viewing between parents and kids.
The strategy now: Make the movie as accessible as possible to both boys and girls.
“It is tough and it’s always been a goal,” executive producer and director Ortega said of striking that gender balance. “Ever since I got involved with the Disney Channel about 11 years ago it’s always something we talk about. But that balance is not a simple thing to achieve, especially when you know the balance of your audience is little girls. But that has changed a lot. When we meet kids there are a lot more guys in the crowd who have followed us.”
Indeed, “Descendants 2” moves to a more action-oriented place than the original’s school setting, with more “pirates and swords,” Parriott said. Dove Cameron (“Liv and Maddie”), Cameron Boyce (“Jessie”), Sofia Carson (“Adventures in Babysitting”), Booboo Stewart (“X- Men Days of Future Past”), and Mitchell Hope reprise the roles of Mal, Carlos, Evie, Jay and King Ben, respectively. New villains include China Anne McClain (“A.N.T. Farm”) as Uma, the daughter of Ursula; Thomas Doherty (“The Lodge”) as Harry, son of Captain Hook; Dylan Playfair (“Some Assembly Required”) as Gil, son of Gaston; and Anna Cathcart (“Odd Squad”) as Dizzy, daughter of Cinderella’s evil stepsister Drizella and granddaughter of wicked stepmother Lady Tremaine.
For “Descendants 2,” Ortega said he believed “we have arrived at a place of balance better than before. Our girls love action, they love adventure, they love surprise, they love pace. It’s all of those things I was attracted to growing up.”
While the first “Descendants” dealt with good vs. evil, the new movie has a deeper message: Being true to yourself. Parriott said she and McGibbon said they believed the story “felt richer. We are women, we have daughters [and we know] they are more likely to not feel like they have a voice.”
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