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Pow! Writers Sock It to Marvel

Well, that stinks. Thanks to the writers' strike, Marvel Entertainment (NYSE: MVL  ) now anticipates releasing just one self-produced film during 2009, at the end of that year.

So, after Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk are released in May and June, there could be at least a 15-month gap till the next self-produced film is released (assuming a Q4 2009 release). There goes the guidance of two Marvel studio releases per year.

I've a call into Marvel to discuss the ramifications of the delay. I'll return with what I learn, and my revised valuation, in the coming days. For now, let's talk numbers. They still look very good.

For the fourth quarter, revenue was up 28% and net income more than doubled. Operating margin improved by more than 16 percentage points, thanks to a toy licensing deal with Hasbro (NYSE: HAS  ) .

Actually, licensing in general was a huge business. Revenue from its product placement and other such deals with the likes of Crocs (Nasdaq: CROX  ) and General Mills (NYSE: GIS  ) more than doubled in the fourth quarter and for the full year.

Licensing also accounted for roughly 56% of total revenue in 2007. Thanks for that goes to its Spider-Man joint venture with Sony (NYSE: SNE  ) , which produced $122 million in sales following the May 2007 release of Spider-Man 3.

Revenue, as a whole, was up 38% in 2007. Per-share net income rose more than 150%. And cash flow, while not on the same growth trajectory as before, was bountiful:

Components of Adj. Cash From Operations





Reported net income





Depreciation and amortization





Amortization of financing costs





Deferred revenue





Film production costs





Borrowings from film facility





Capital expenditures





Adj. Operating Cash Flow





Sources: Marvel press releases, SEC filings.
*Numbers in thousands.

The net effect of that cash creation is massive. Marvel repurchased $211.9 million in stock, issued no new recourse debt, and yet ended 2007 with $72 million in cash, restricted cash, and short-term investments, up from $40 million at the end of 2006.

Talk about impressive.

Actually, more impressive is that Marvel didn't raise guidance for 2008, even though it easily could have. Why? Buybacks and movies. Neither factors into Marvel's full-year projections.

That's crazy. Iron Man looks like anything but a flop, the Incredible Hulk has a low hurdle, and Lions Gate (NYSE: LGF  ) plans a Sept. 12, 2008 release for its sequel to 2004's The Punisher.

Then there's the buybacks. Marvel's board has authorized yet another $100 million share repurchase. Roughly $10 million went to buy stock so far in the first quarter; 414,000 or so shares at $24.01 apiece.

So, take heart, true believer. Marvel has earned a reputation for conservative management and lowball guidance. Could that be enough to make up for what appears to be a lack of adequate long-term planning in its studio division? That's a question I'll address after talking with Marvel. Stay tuned.

Face-front, Fool! Related Foolishness awaits:

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