Batman Can't Replace Harry Potter -- or Can He?

For the most part, Time Warner (NYSE: TWX  ) has been a market laggard. The stock has trailed the S&P 500 year to date -- and that's despite this week's rally on good fourth-quarter earnings.

Revenue rose 4.9% to $8.19 billion while adjusted profit zoomed more than 40% to $0.94 a share. Both figures far outpaced peer Walt Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) , which reported essentially flat sales growth and 18% growth in earnings per share.

So what's the problem? Time Warner's outlook didn't impress enough. Adjusted earnings growth is expected to slow materially from last year's 20% gain, though should remain in the double digits. Analysts expect full-year revenue is expected to inch up just 1.2% as new cinema releases work to offset the slower-growing publishing business.

For 2011, publishing -- which includes the Time Inc. segment and the DC Comics imprint -- saw adjusted operating income improve 10%. Filmed entertainment enjoyed a 15% gain over the same period, while the networks division, Time Warner's largest, grew 6%.

Filmed entertainment has provided tailwind to Time Warner and screen partner IMAX (NYSE: IMAX  ) in years past, mostly thanks to the Harry Potter movie franchise. Last summer's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows -- Part 2 grossed $15.2 million in IMAX showings during its opening weekend, setting a record. Worldwide, the film earned $542.2 million in its first four days on the big screen.

This year, Warner Bros.' primary tentpole bet is the third and final installment in Christopher Nolan's on-screen depiction of the Batman legend The Dark Knight Rises. Frankly, it can't come soon enough. Go ahead and turn on the signal. As Time Warner investors, we need something more than a hero. We need a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A Dark Knight.

Will Batman deliver? I think so, if only because director Christopher Nolan has a history of making blockbusters. Each of his last three productions has grossed more than $250 million at the U.S. box office. Time Warner should enjoy a similar gate for The Dark Knight Rises when it screens this July.

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers is a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team. He owned shares of Time Warner and Walt Disney at the time of publication. Check out Tim's web home, portfolio holdings and Foolish writings, or connect with him on Google+ or Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool. You can also get his insights delivered directly to your RSS reader.

Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of IMAX and Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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