The first quarter of 2012 was a mixed blessing for Walt Disney (NYSE: DIS ) .
On one four-fingered hand, the House of Mouse delivered earnings of $0.80 per share, up from $0.68 last year and far ahead of analyst estimates. But on the other, sales stayed nearly flat at $10.8 billion, while Wall Street had wanted to see at least 4% growth. Shares are down more than 2% in after-market action, more than erasing Tuesday's gains.
Disney CEO Bob Iger isn't too bothered. "We're off to a good start in this fiscal year executing on our ongoing strategy, deriving greater value from our brands -- Disney, Pixar, Marvel, ESPN, and ABC," he said. Most of the operating segments did alright after all, with the notable exceptions of studio entertainment and interactive media.
And even there, the disappointing sales were at least partially the result of conscious management decisions. The gaming division is moving out of console titles and into a more casual-gaming approach. A torrent of console titles in the year-ago period turned into a trickle. In the long run, that's probably the right decision; Console-gaming giants Electronic Arts (Nasdaq: EA ) and Activision Blizzard (Nasdaq: ATVI ) aren't the desirable role models they once were, and I can't blame Iger for wanting more of a casual-gaming Zynga (Nasdaq: ZNGA ) flavor in that division.
The studio segment faced the impossible task of replacing both Tangled and Tron: Legacy with a lackluster slate led by The Muppets. A similar story played out in DVD releases, where Toy Story 3 led the charge in 2011. But the studio churned out solid profits thanks to lower theatrical-distribution costs. Economies of scale can work against a company on the bottom line should some of the expected hits fail to earn back their huge marketing budgets.
Looking ahead: The March quarter includes Bryan Cranston vehicle John Carter and Studio Ghibli's Secret World of Arrietty. While widely anticipated, those titles probably won't set the world on fire. But then Disney roars into hot and heavy summer action with Marvel tentpole The Avengers and Pixar's Brave. And don't forget that the studio will take a cut when Sony (NYSE: SNE ) relaunches the Spider-Man saga in July.
That stretch is where Disney will really prove its mettle in 2012. Add Disney to your Foolish Watchlist so you can follow all the action from the comfort of your own couch. In the meantime, check out the surprising stock we've pegged as the best stock to own in 2012. And no, it usually doesn't wear mouse ears.