After Disappointing Earnings, Disney’s Bob Iger Implores: Hey, What About the Movies?

Bob Iger
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Disney’s second quarter earnings call this week had a different kind of vibe, and not just because the company’s long streak of beating Wall Street expectations came to an abrupt end. There was the missing-man factor: Tom Staggs was absent, following the COO’s resignation last month when it became clear he would not become the company’s next CEO. And, most notably, there was the tone of current CEO Bob Iger – unable or unwilling to conceal his apparent exasperation at the focus on Disney’s shortcomings, while analysts seemed to ignore a major winning streak at the movies.

If Disney had its druthers, the world would stop and pay greater homage to what has been (by all accounts) a phenomenal run of blockbuster film releases – from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” to “Zootopia” to “The Jungle Book” and, now, the huge opening of “Captain America: Civil War.”

Since its 2006 purchase of Pixar, Disney’s 27 major films have averaged $770 million in global box office receipts. The company’s movies have already brought in more than $3 billion around the world this year, the fastest a studio has ever hit that heady benchmark. Iger told analysts and reporters so, during Tuesday’s call.

But the cinematic bounty didn’t seem to stick with the market watchers. Instead, market watchers harped on disappointing results in consumer products and continued worries about subscribers fleeing ESPN. So at the end of Tuesday’s call, Iger took corrective action. “I am actually kind of surprised that, after almost 45 minutes of questioning, we didn’t get one question about our studio,” said the CEO, who typically displays nothing but aplomb in his interactions with Wall Street.

“I just want to reiterate that the studio’s results were up tremendously in the quarter and up over 60% for the first two quarters of the year,” Iger continued. He then reviewed the box office totals for “Zootopia,” (more than $900 million worldwide) “Jungle Book” (more than $700 million) and “Captain America’s” roaring start (it’s already well over $200 million, after less than a week in theaters).

“I just feel like we have done a lot of work as a company to grow that business,” Iger said. “In fact,  studio [operating income] for the first half of the year is over a billion five [hundred million.] I just want to make sure we give credit where credit is due to a studio that has done a fantastic job and that is firing on more than all cylinders.”

While not exactly an outburst, the words registered as something close to that for the normally unruffled Iger. If questioned, most analysts would concede that Disney movies have been powering not just the company, but spinoff successes via television, theme parks, cruise ships and merchandise. “We believe the continued (barely talked about) studio performance is vital to the continued IP replenishment which feeds all of Disney’s businesses,” wrote Todd Juenger of Bernstein in a note to investors Wednesday.

The problem for Disney, and Iger, is that winning movies don’t make other challenges go away. Disney observers have fixated for the last year on the ESPN subscriber losses. And the company’s media networks, of which ESPN is a major contributor, bring in half the company’s profits. Combined with overly optimistic projections about consumer products – which came up at less than $1.2 billion, 12% below analysts’ consensus estimates – and Wall Street did not react kindly to Disney’s news this week.

Disney also acknowledged it wasn’t gaining any ground in the video game publishing business. It quietly folded its Disney Infinity brand console gaming operating, taking a $147 million charge against its second quarter earnings. The news came in a footnote to the earnings report, with the company acknowledging sales of the game-and-action-figure packages had been disappointing after initial success. “The risk caught up with us,” Iger said.

Shares in the Walt Disney Company dipped 6% on the news, dropping briefly to less than $100. The company’s stock had recouped about one third of that decline a day later. It was hardly a disaster, in an era when selloffs for some of its competitors have been much greater. Still, it was a setback for a company not used to them.

Iger and Disney have plenty of time to make up those fractional declines. He has two years left on his contract, and plenty of good news to talk about before his reign ends, such as the opening in June of the company’s Shanghai Disney Resort.

The CEO gushed over the theme park Tuesday with words like “awed” and “breathtaking.” He summed it up by saying the opening would be “one of the proudest and most exciting moments in the history of this phenomenal company, not to mention a monumental achievement.”

Disney has positioned the opening of the Shanghai park as a crowning achievement of the Iger era, one that is scheduled to end, along with his current contract, in June of 2018. At the outset of the earnings call, Iger seemed clear that he did not plan to stay with the company after that date.

“I don’t currently have any plans to extend beyond the current expiration date of June of 2018,” Iger said, responding to a question. Some on the Internet emphasized the “currently” in that statement, suggesting the CEO still has plenty of time to change his mind. But someone who is close to Iger said observers should not read that as an equivocation. For Iger, that means only eight more earnings calls to go.