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High School Musical 4 May Be Theatrical Release

Walt Disney Company's highly anticipated "High School Musical 3: Senior Year" hits movie theaters around the globe next week on October 22, with bumper advance ticket sales and plans to keep the $1 billion-plus franchise red-hot with a fourth film.

Disney is considering releasing High School Musical 4 in theaters worldwide. Earlier it was announced that HSM4 would be released as a Disney Channel Original Movie, as the first two installments of the HSM franchise were.

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."

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.