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Disney magic’s back

Film, theme parks doing boffo biz, sez Eisner

HOLLYWOOD — Head Mouseketeer Michael Eisner on Tuesday told Wall Streeters Disney is again becoming a Magic Kingdom for investors.

Speaking at a Smith Barney Citigroup conference in Phoenix, Eisner pointed to 2003 stock gains as a sign of Disney’s recent market strength.

“Our shareholders are benefiting directly from what our organization has achieved,” the chairman-CEO said. “For calendar 2003, the stock price of the Walt Disney Co. appreciated 43%, comfortably outperforming the S&P 500’s growth of 26%.”

Eisner’s presentation reiterated recent suggestions that Disney’s division-by-division turnaround effort is starting to take hold.

Free cash flow increased 50% in fiscal 2003, while earnings rose 10% and debt dropped 11%, topper noted.

“We’re extremely pleased with the momentum we commenced over the past year,” he said. “I firmly believe that the performance turnaround at our company is now under way.”

Disney’s film operations led distributor market share in the past 12 months, Eisner noted. He praised “Finding Nemo,” “Bringing Down the House” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” and showed trailers from pics including Jerry Bruckheimer’s upcoming summer actioner “King Arthur.”

“Our greatest growth driver during the past year has been the Walt Disney Studios,” Eisner said.

Theme parks showed renewed strength in December, he added, and TV operations include continued growth at ESPN and movement toward profitability at ABC.

The most recent perf of Disney stock offers further evidence of a rebound of fortunes at the Burbank conglom.

Disney shares rose 6¢ to $24.20, marking a new 52-week closing high. The stock set a 52-week low of $15.02 last March 11.

The continued solid performance of the shares could hinge on the eventual outcome of talks with toon co-prod partner Pixar. Eisner provided no new indication of how those negotiations are going, however.

The Mouse topper said he is optimistic a new deal with Pixar can be reached. But Eisner said he would agree to extend the relationship only “if it makes sense economically for the bottom line of the company.”

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