When Miley Cyrus wanted to shift away from the tween roles that have defined her career, Tish Cyrus, her mother and co-manager, started at the top.
Rather than look for a pre-existing script, she contacted bestselling author Nicholas Sparks ("The Notebook") and asked him to write something specifically for her daughter.
"Sparks is an amazing, faith-based writer and a Christian and he writes about relationships with a family and there is nothing about sex or things I felt were wrong for her," she explains.
Cyrus, 16, met with the writer to flesh out her character; she disclosed elements from her own life -- like her love for animals -- that Sparks incorporated in his work, which started as a screenplay and only later became "The Last Song," a best-selling novel. The movie version, with Cyrus, opens in April.
"This film is like taking that first baby step away from 'Hannah Montana,' " Tish Cyrus notes. "It's just a baby step, but she's doing something different."
Doing something different is one of many perfect moves the Cyrus team has made in building her career. Taken together, they're a textbook case on how to develop a young performer.
While few young actors can hope to emulate Cyrus' success, the 5,000 members of SAG who are younger than 18 will face many of the same decisions that affect whether they succeed or fail.
Speak to agents, managers, producers and studio executives and they will tell you several key elements go into crafting a young actor's career: picking the right team; handling money astutely; maintaining an ongoing education trajectory; and diversifying away from roles that too narrowly define the performer.
The first step in building a career, of course, is finding the right management.
"It's important to choose a representative who knows how to make career decisions slowly," says Cyrus' co-manager, Jason Morey.
"You have to have someone who has a plan," adds Frederick Levy, the owner of a talent firm, Management 101, and the author of "Acting in Young Hollywood."
Cyrus was lucky to have a father, singer-actor Billy Ray Cyrus, involved in show business and a mother immersed in her work. But parents can be a two-edged sword: If parents become what Levy calls "the momagers and popagers," trouble looms.
"I like the parents most who look at acting as if they have a kid on a soccer team or baseball team," says producer Matt Dearborn, who has had shows on Nickelodeon and Disney Channel, including the new "Zeke and Luther" on Disney XD. "It gets problematic when they start reading scripts or complain about parking spaces."
Others with prominent stage parents -- like Katherine Heigl, who started out as a child performer and whose mother has continued to work closely with her -- have proved mixed blessings. Indeed, sources say that in Heigl's case, one management company told her to choose between the firm and her mother.
When Cyrus' career began to blossom, her mother got the best advice she could on who should rep her daughter. Dolly Parton suggested Morey Management Group and its patriarch, Jim Morey; his son, Jason, began managing Cyrus' career, along with her mother.
"Dolly said the Moreys are people you can trust around your daughter," Tish Cyrus recalls, "and she said they have good morals, which is not always the case in this business."
Choosing the right team isn't as simple as it sounds: This year, Cyrus' family made a controversial move when they took her away from her longtime agent, Mitchell Gossett, and went to CAA. Gossett had left his previous agency to join UTA in the hope of giving Cyrus the major-agency backing that would support a widening career; but that wasn't enough to keep her with him. (Both sides declined to discuss the matter.)
Other actors have made mistakes, either sticking with the right reps too long or abandoning those who have nurtured them. Insiders cite the ongoing image problems of Britney Spears, whose transition to adulthood has been marked by a wholesale change of representation. (Curiously, under her father's conservatorship, she has made something of a comeback.)
In Cyrus' case, in addition to hiring the right reps, Tish Cyrus hired her husband's business manager to handle her finances -- another crucial element as a career expands.
"It's kind of scary to think what can happen to a child's money," she notes. "Parents quit their jobs, and to support their family they have to use a child's money to survive."
At least 15% of any earnings by law must now be set aside in a blocked account that no one can touch until a young performer reaches the age of 18. But unscrupulous parents or managers can sometimes siphon that away and there have been famous instances of lawsuits wielding accusations on all sides -- as with Macaulay Culkin, the "Home Alone" star who failed to build on that franchise's momentum.
"So many kids have worked and, when they look back, there's nothing left," Tish Cyrus adds. "That's why we hired someone we can trust."
Having money somewhere safe is essential as kids grow older and want to diversify, the next important step in building a long-term career.
While Cyrus has done this notably by moving into movies and concert tours (following her former agent Gossett's advice to "continue to grow"), few have created as many opportunities for themselves as Mario Lopez, best known for his hosting work on "Extra."
About 25 years after he got a tiny role on a failing ABC sitcom, "A.K.A. Pablo," Lopez is building on a resume that includes his work on NBC's teen sitcom, "Saved by the Bell," and his co-starring role in the syndicated Santa Monica beach cop drama "Pacific Blue," which helped him transition into adulthood. The peripatetic performer is thinking about a political career.
Mark Indelicato, who co-stars on ABC's "Ugly Betty," is one performer who is dealing with diversification right now. He says he's considering a musical career and wants to write and produce.
"I don't want to do Justin types," he says, referring to the character he plays.
Even at 16, Indelicato recognizes the risks of stereotyping him in one role, and of shifting away from the role that has made him famous. If that strategy fails, he says, "I'll move back to Pennsylvania and get a regular life."
To do so, he'll need the kind of solid education that has become increasingly important to child performers and gives them the intellectual and emotional foundation that allows them to move into adulthood. Those who have succeeded best in crafting long careers -- like Jodie Foster, Brooke Shields and Natalie Portman -- have made sure to take time off for college and used their earnings to pay for it.
Today, the industry is more vigilant than ever with regard to education.
Any producer who hires a minor and guarantees three or more days of consecutive employment must also employ a teacher during regularly scheduled high school or grammar school periods. Producers who are signatories to SAG contracts must provide similar education for a minor working overseas -- though local situations create far less protection than in the U.S., as the controversy surrounding the "Slumdog Millionaire" stars recently made clear.
Cyrus' teacher takes her on educational field trips when she's on location. She also "knows the child labor laws and won't let her work one minute over the rules," Cyrus' mother says. "If they take Miley on a photo shoot and they want 15 more minutes, she won't let them."
When it comes to her concert tours, Tish Cyrus goes on the road with the young singer. During Cyrus' current tour, her mother insisted the promoters reschedule three engagements after her daughter became ill with a throat infection, which surfaced during a Sept. 29 performance in Salt Lake City.
"She had a 103-degree fever," Tish says. "This was major strep throat."
Aware of how challenging it is to build a career, many studios and networks are now stepping in -- like Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, which
have set up their own professional guidance programs for new talent, Nick 101 and Talent 101 at Disney.
Disney Channel recently opened a session of Talent 101 in a conference room at the studio's Burbank lot. About 20 cast members from various shows including "Zeke and Luther" attended.
"For some, this is their first time in the business and this is a snapshot about what changes will be in their lives," says Judy Taylor, Disney Channel's executive vp, casting and talent relations. "They're told what it will be like to be a public figure."
Seven young performers and their parents recently showed up for similar coaching in Nickelodeon's green room before shooting "Victorious," a new sitcom starring Victoria Justice. There, agents, producers and members of the network's press department and cable channel executives tutored them on such fundamentals as how to dress for media interviews and how to deal with fans. Learning how to operate in the business is becoming more essential. The business opportunities are growing, which means that kids have to learn to deal with hard business issues more than ever before. They also need to learn about money.
"This is a kids' network," says Paula Kaplan, Nickelodeon's executive vp for talent, "and this is a show for kids. We give them the nuts and bolts. We tell them this is what we expect from them as professionals. We expect you to be on time and be prepared. This isn't like school where your mom writes a letter. This is a business."
Abigail Breslin, 13, an Oscar nominee for "Little Miss Sunshine" who co-stars in "Zombieland," earned $2 million for her work in "Nim's Island" and again in "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl," sources say. (Unlike Cyrus, she has allowed her longtime agent, Meredith Fine of Coast to Coast Talent Group, to continue to rep her.)
Dakota Fanning, 15, who started her career at age 5 when she landed a Tide commercial and has worked with such major stars as Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington and Sean Penn, now earns $4 million per movie.
The Jonas Brothers made a reported $25 million last year, while Angus T. Jones, 16, pulls in $1.2 million a season for CBS' "Two and a Half Men" and Indelicato makes $460,000 on "Ugly Betty," sources say.
After making an estimated $25 million last year, insiders expect Cyrus to make about $60 million this year.
Ultimately, however, money matters less than material, and teaching young performers good judgment may matter more than anything.
Cyrus may have made a misstep when she allowed herself to be photographed provocatively for Vanity Fair last year; she's being hyper-careful not to do that again. She's sticking with her base: There will be two more seasons of "Hannah Montana." Meanwhile, her current single, "Party in the U.S.A," is No. 1 on the Billboard chart.
And, of course, she's turning to Sparks.
" 'The Last Song' was strategic," her mother says. "It was the start of her transition into adulthood."
Still, pitfalls loom -- even for a Miley Cyrus. "Most of the time, people don't get it right," her mother acknowledges. "Most people get it wrong."