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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Walt Disney Co's hotly anticipated "High School Musical 3: Senior Year" arrives in movie theaters around the world next week, with bumper advance ticket sales and plans to keep the $1 billion-plus franchise hot with a fourth film.
Disney is planning a sumptuous roll-out starting on October 22 for the family-friendly movie -- the first to hit the big screen -- after its two made-for-TV forerunners debuted to much less fanfare on the Disney Channel.
"This movie, we are certain, will be very, very successful," said Mark Zoradi, president of Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group.
It will debut in 3,800 U.S. and Canadian theaters, and double that number in the rest of the world, he said.
The film, starring teen-ager Vanessa Hudgens and her on- and off-screen sweetheart Zac Efron, had captured nearly two-thirds of advance movie sales in the United States by Thursday, outselling films that debut this weekend, U.S. online movie ticket sellers Fandango.com and MovieTickets.com said.
"The tremendous success of the first two films is clearly driving sales for this third installment," said Ted Hong, Fandango's vice president of marketing.
Zoradi said Disney's marketing campaign goal was "to expand beyond the traditional Disney Channel audience ... to teen girls, younger boys and have it be an overall family viewing experience."
The original 2006 TV movie "High School Musical" drew 255 million viewers worldwide and had Disney scrambling to assemble a merchandising program and to put a sequel into production.
The phenomenon grew to embrace a second ratings-busting TV movie in 2007, sold-out stage and ice shows, concerts, record-setting DVD and CD sales, video games and theme park attractions, plus $500 million in "High School Musical" product sales.
"There has never been a TV movie that spawned a business like this," said Rich Ross, president of Disney Channels Worldwide.
"High School Musical 3" sees the main characters graduating and bidding farewell to fictional East High School.
But Disney sees no reason to retire a property that produced $100 million in operating profit in its first 18 months and stands to produce a similar amount in fiscal 2008 alone.
The company has not yet had contract discussions with the actors for a fourth film, set for release in 2010, although it likely will be without Efron and Hudgens and some other key principals.
But Ross said Disney was "very bullish that there is a lot more story to tell about East High. We are going to focus on the new story and the characters and we will go from there."
Disney will factor in more than just box office in deciding whether "High School Musical 4" returns to its cable TV origins or joins big movie franchises like "Pirates of the Caribbean," "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "National Treasure," Ross said.
Disney is not too worried that a wholesale cast change will dampen children's devotion to the fictional New Mexico high school because, like the original cast, the "tween" audience is growing up and a new group of young fans awaits.
"I think this franchise is stronger than the individual characters themselves, not that they haven't been hugely popular," said Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.
"The universe that has been created clearly isn't one that they can populate with the same characters. They grow up."
Reporting by Gina Keating. Editing by Jill Serjeant and Bill Trott