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`LION KING’ TO HIBERNATE UNTIL THE HOLIDAYS

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It's almost like grabbing candy away from children.

Walt Disney Co. says it will pull "The Lion King" out of movie theaters at the end of next month, even though the hit animated film is still drawing crowds at the box office and could continue to do so through the fall.But moviegoers will still have a another chance for a taste of this year's biggest box-office hit: Disney, in an unusual marketing move, is trying to bottle up demand for "The Lion King" until the big holiday movie-going season - and make up for not having a new animated release for Thanksgiving for the first time in several years.

As such, the film will be re-released in late November after being withdrawn Sept. 23.

The move was first reported in the trade paper Daily Variety. While Disney confirmed the report, no one at the company would comment on the strategy.

Industry executives said Disney's move appeared to mark the first time that a studio withdrew a highly popular film only to re-release it a few months later.

They said the planned September closing of "The Lion King" would normally be very premature, because it has been playing to wide audiences for only seven weeks and is still taking in more than $7 million a week at the box office.

Just this month, it moved into the top 10 movies of all time at the box office, with $233 million in sales in this country.

In contrast, last year's biggest hit, Universal Pictures' "Jurassic Park," ran in movie theaters for 46 weeks, according to the Exhibitor Relations Company, a box-office research concern in Los Angeles. It became the second-biggest box-office hit ever, selling $348 million in tickets.

But some industry analysts say Disney's experiment is shrewd and creative, with little downside risk.

"They don't have a whole lot to lose because they've already made so much money and can actually maximize on that growth by reintroducing the movie," said Ira Mayer, publisher of the Entertainment Marketing Letter, a monthly newsletter in Brooklyn.

Indeed, movie attendance usually drops off when school starts in the fall and picks up again at Thanksgiving. One Hollywood executive close to Disney, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: "They are trying to capitalize on the year's two biggest movie seasons, summer and Christmas. I think it's brilliant."

The biggest risk of the strategy is that another Thanksgiving movie will have bigger drawing power among children. But that seems unlikely. The chief contenders will be two movies from 20th Century Fox, "Pagemaster," starring Whoopi Goldberg and Macaulay Culkin, and a remake of "Miracle on 34th Street."

Disney has a live-action movie, "The Santa Claus," starring Tim Allen, planned for the holiday, but had no animated film to release. Disney's two big animated successes of recent years, "Aladdin" and "Beauty and the Beast," were both Thanksgiving releases. "Aladdin" is Disney's second-biggest grossing film, with $217 million in box-office sales.

The "delayed gratification strategy," as Mayer calls it, is a spin on Disney's tried-and-true formula for marketing its animated classics. The company maintains the magic of those movies, Mayer said, by controlling their availability.

Movies like "Snow White" are re-released only once every seven years, and with great fanfare, to a new generation of children. If videos of these movies are released, their sale is limited to less than a year.

While some industry executives said the re-release would be well-timed for possible Academy Award nominations early next year, many said it would not matter because a movie as strong as "The Lion King" would stay fresh in Hollywood minds.