Dan Loeb believes that The Walt Disney Company could conquer the world of streaming. But it hasn’t yet, and it might need some help.
The activist investor argued in a letter to Disney CEO Bob Chapek on Wednesday that Disney must double the amount of money it spends producing and acquiring content for Disney Plus, ESPN Plus and Hulu if it wants to catch up with one of its biggest rivals, Netflix.
“The good news about Disney versus Netflix is this is not Yahoo versus Google, where Google had an insurmountable gain and a network effect where Yahoo was never going to catch up,” said Loeb, who runs the Third Point hedge fund, in an interview with Variety. “Given the relationship that Disney has with the entertainment consuming public thanks to franchises like Marvel and Star Wars and Pixar, they can leverage all of those to increase their subscriber base.”
Third Point began buying shares of Disney last spring and summer when the stock was weighed down by coronavirus concerns over its theme park closures. Now Loeb is using the hedge fund’s position to push the company to suspend its dividend.
Popular on Variety
He believes there’s a better use for that money. Bolstering the number of paying customers will only come if Disney Plus expands its array of premium content — the service saw subscriptions rise last summer with the release of Lin Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” and Beyonce’s “Black is King.”
“What Netflix has is this immense subscriber base that allows it to invest in an enormous amount of content and amortize that to get more subscribers,” Loeb said. “Disney isn’t there yet, but they need to get there as quickly as possible. If they don’t get critical mass in their subscriber base, they will be permanently disadvantaged versus Netflix.”
To that end, Loeb said he’d like to see Disney premiere several upcoming Marvel and Pixar blockbusters that it moved into 2021 on Disney Plus as a way to attract new subscribers and retain current customers.
“My understanding is that the old-line executives don’t want to go over the top with their big tentpole movies, which is why they announced they were pushing ‘Black Widow” and other movies to 2021,” Loeb said. “I don’t think they appreciate the tiger they have by the tail, which is to say the value they can drive by moving into a subscription model, which has been adopted by everyone from Microsoft to Amazon. It’s so value accretive.”
Loeb thinks theaters’ prominence in the entertainment ecosystem will be diminished after a COVID-19 vaccine is developed. Cineworld has already announced that it is temporarily closing its U.K. locations and the U.S. venues it operates under its Regal Cinemas division. Thus, many analysts believe that other theater chains are on the brink of bankruptcy if moviegoing doesn’t come back in a big way soon. Loeb thinks moviegoing will survive, but it will be fundamentally altered.
“People still use their AOL accounts and Yahoo email and there’s still some Yellow Pages, those big bricks of paper, that get shipped around,” he said. “I don’t think theaters will go away overnight, but it will be much more of a novelty experience in order to really distribute things. I think the world’s going to go largely toward online distribution.”
Loeb is bullish on Disney Plus’s growth potential, but he takes issue with its infrastructure. Disney Plus, Hulu, and ESPN Plus have been bundled together as a package for customers, but Loeb thinks that the user experience needs to be streamlined.
“They need to lead with Disney Plus,” he said. “I think they need to keep the content segregated inside the site, but it’s a mess to have separate user interfaces. Why can’t you just click on the Disney Plus icon on your TV and one side takes you to the Disney Plus offerings and the other takes you to Hulu?”
Disney’s theme park business has been brutalized by the pandemic. Disneyland has been closed since COVID-19 cases started to rise while Disney World, which is open, has seen attendance decrease dramatically. Loeb thinks the drag on revenues is temporary.
“The theme parks, the travel, all the unique experiences that highlight Disney’s brands are integral to how Disney can differentiate itself from Netflix,” he said. “There’s also a tremendous opportunity for them to mine the data that they get. Let’s say you’re a family that goes to the parks that likes the Star Wars rides and buys Star Wars merchandise, that’s really valuable information.”
In the past, Loeb has had no problem sounding off about poor management decisions in companies he’s invested in such as Sony, Sotheby’s and Yahoo. In the case of his Disney letter, Loeb’s intentions are to advise, not antagonize.
“I wanted to be constructive and supportive, but also really clear about the direction we think that Disney should go in,” he said.