Let's be honest: Walt Disney's (NYSE:DIS) fiscal 2017 wasn't very impressive. For the first time in nearly a decade, the largest monkey in the entertainment jungle posted declines in both revenue and net profit. In the closing quarter of the year, both of those line items landed well below the average analyst estimates.
By all rights, we should have expected the stock price to take a hit on the news. It didn't, though, and that might be because many shareholders still feel bullish about the company's prospects. I think there's plenty of justification for this.
A mousey year
Disney posted revenue declines in most of its business units. Of the four, only parks and resorts saw an increase.
|Division||2017 Revenue||2016 Revenue||+/- YoY|
|Media networks (TV)||$23,510||$23,689||(1%)|
|Parks and resorts||$18,415||$16,974||8%|
|Studio entertainment (film)||$8,379||$9,441||(11%)|
|Consumer products/interactive media||$4,833||$5,528||(13%)|
Yet considering that overall revenue dipped by only 1%, parks and resorts came close to making up for the losses of the other three units.
What helped enormously is Shanghai Disney, the park that opened in mid-2016 and has been a big hit. With a full year of results behind it, the facility is goosing results for its business division. Elsewhere in the world, onetime underperformer Disneyland Paris increased its attendance and guest spending, thanks in no small part to the park's 25th anniversary festivities.
The Mouse won't only have to rely on curious Chinese tourists for future growth in parks and resorts. The hotly anticipated Star Wars Lands in California's Disneyland and Florida's Walt Disney World are almost certain to bring in more visitors to those anchor locations. Rides and attractions linked to the company's strong slate of upcoming film releases should help, too.
Speaking of the silver screen, Disney's already off to a roaring start in fiscal 2018 with Thor: Ragnarok. Even though the latest entry from the Marvel comic book canon is barely two weeks into its theater run, it's already cracked the list of top 10 best-performing releases of 2017. And of course we have the latest blockbuster space opera to look forward to: Star Wars: The Last Jedi is coming soon to a theater near you.
Media networks (i.e., TV) continues to be a dark spot because of that ever-eroding ESPN subscriber base. Disney is attempting to address that matter with its planned ESPN Plus streaming service, which will feature sports coverage beyond what's typically broadcast on the namesake channel.
I'm not sure that'll be a game-changer (pun intended) for ESPN, although the service certainly does have a shot at being the sports version of Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) -- i.e., the go-to streaming choice for its medium. Regardless, I like that Disney is trying hard to make its troubled asset work by harnessing it to 21st-century technology.
I'm more encouraged by the second of the company's two streaming initiatives, a branded service that will feature some of its top franchise properties and series.
I'm thinking in particular of Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar, of course. Films in those series have done extremely well at the box office. As such, they'll form an attractive lineup when bundled with related content, plus the mountain of other Disney TV and film properties. The Mouse's promise to price the branded service below that of Netflix should also help draw subscribers.
The Force is strong with this one
Few of the new initiatives will come onstream in the near future; the mentioned films are an exception. The Star Wars Lands won't be ready until 2019, while ESPN Plus is slated for a 2018 debut, and the branded Disney streaming service should be available on our tablets and phones the following year, giving Netflix and other streamers time to bulk up their content libraries -- but then again, they don't have Star Wars and Marvel.
So it's very possible that Disney will slog through another few quarters of declines, or tepid growth if we're being more optimistic. But I fervently believe that at least a few of the company's upcoming projects will be winners, and big ones at that. The Force will awaken, and shareholders should be more than handsomely rewarded when it does.