Risky business for Disney's studio arm

The division is coming off a year in which operating income dropped significantly.

By Jim J. Jubak Jan 10, 2012 6:04PM
Image: Hollywood (© Comstock/SuperStock)Walt Disney’s (DIS) movie business didn't look like it was going to turn in a stunning 2011 before, but the well-publicized troubles of the studio's former marketing president MT Carney -- a Hollywood Reporter piece Monday quoted her departure e-mail -- is drawing new attention to just how bad the first half of 2012 could be for a business that accounts for 16% of the company’s revenue.

Credit Suisse forecasts revenue at the studio entertainment division to rise just 4% in fiscal 2012. That comes after a fiscal 2011 in which operating income dropped by 11%.

But that performance in fiscal 2011 could wind up looking like the good old days and the projections for fiscal 2012 could turn out to be optimistic. The company's slate of big first-half releases is full of high-risk projects. 

Science fiction epic "John Carter" is estimated to have cost $250 million, the New York Times reported. Pixar’s June release is "Brave," a movie built around a Scottish princess that may not immediately appeal to boys. "The Avengers," scheduled for May, is the first Marvel movie that Disney will market on its own since buying Marvel in 2009.

Disney is set to release earnings on Feb. 7. I’m not worried about the recently concluded fiscal first quarter of 2012 that the company will report then. It's guidance that could hold a nasty surprise or two. 

Negative comments about the studio entertainment division aren’t going to be as damaging to the shares as bad news about, say, theme parks. Most Wall Street analysts covering Disney are resigned to the unpredictable volatility of the movie business and won’t ding the stock too hard for any problems in that unit.

But negative guidance on the movie unit still won’t be helpful to the share price. The chart on the stock looks extended -- it’s trading near the top of its Bollinger Band. Given the risk in the Feb. 7 guidance, I’m going to take my 8% profit (as of Jan. 10) here. That's short of the absolute dollar gain I was looking for when I added the stock to the portfolio, but 8% plus dividends in a little more than a month is okay by me. (The next dividend isn’t set to be paid until Jan. 18, but since the record date was Dec. 16, if you bought on Dec. 2, as I did in my Jubak’s Picks portfolio, you’ve already qualified for the payout.)

At the time of this writing, Jim Jubak didn't own shares of any companies mentioned in this post in personal portfolios. The mutual fund he manages, Jubak Global Equity Fund (JUBAX), may or may not own positions in any stock mentioned. The fund did not own shares of Walt Disney as of the end of September. For a full list of the stocks in the fund as of the end of the most recent quarter, see the fund's portfolio here. 

Jan 10, 2012 7:07PM
disney seems to think that "big wow" special affects are more important than a basic good story.  until they change their thinking, disney movies will be a lagard on the company
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