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Can Disney Outspend Netflix on Streaming Content?

By John Ballard – Dec 16, 2020 at 9:15AM

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The entertainment giant just announced new annual spending targets for Disney+ as it rapidly narrows its subscriber gap with the streaming-video leader.

Streaming is the new battleground in the entertainment industry, and Disney (DIS -1.83%) has emerged as one of the top global players in the space. Just one year after it launched Disney+, the new service has already attracted nearly half as many subscribers as Netflix (NFLX 2.50%), while spending only a fraction as much on fresh content.

But Disney's stepping on the gas with investments in several new original series based on its most popular brands, a signal that the House of Mouse is quickly shifting to a streaming-first business strategy.

Disney is doubling its content investment

Management's latest spending targets for Disney+ called for $2 billion in content amortization expense in its fiscal 2020 (which ended Oct. 3), with a gradual increase to the "mid-$4 billion range" by fiscal 2024. By comparison, Netflix laid out $13.9 billion on additions to its content library in 2019. 

Disney CEO standing in front of a several logos of Disney assets.

Disney CEO Bob Chapek. Image source: Walt Disney.

Disney+ won't match Netflix anytime soon on content spending. In an investor presentation on Dec. 10, Disney outlined plans to increase its annual content expense to between $8 billion to $9 billion annually over the next four years. 

However, across its three streaming offerings -- Disney+, ESPN+, and Hulu -- Disney expects content expense will reach between $14 billion to $16 billion in fiscal 2024.  

Still, it's apparent that the company doesn't need to spend as much on new content as the streaming leader to grow its subscriber base -- perhaps because its catalog was already so deep. While Netflix has 195 million subscribers, Disney+ had signed up an impressive 86.8 million subscribers as of Dec. 2. 

There's no doubt many Disney+ subscribers are signing up to see The Mandalorian, which has been its marquee show. It also had success recently with the film version of the Broadway hit Hamilton and the release of its live-action Mulan remake as a premier-access title. 

Dozens of new originals are coming to Disney+

Management estimates there are more than 1 billion "true" fans worldwide who have deep emotional connections with Disney's brands. That figure likely factored into management's updated outlook that Disney+ could attract between 230 million to 260 million paid subscribers by fiscal 2024. 

Not surprisingly, much of Disney's investment in Disney+ will go toward several originals from its Star Wars and Marvel franchises. In total, Disney recently unveiled plans for 10 new original Star Wars series, 10 original Marvel series, 15 live-action series from Disney and Pixar, and 15 live-action films from Disney and Pixar. All of these are set to release over the next few years on Disney+.

One of the new series from the Star Wars universe will be Obi-Wan Kenobi, which is set 10 years after the events of Star Wars: Episode 3 -- Revenge of the Sith (2005). Also coming to Disney+ is The Acolyte, which will be a mystery thriller set in the Star Wars universe roughly 200 years before the timeline of Episodes 1-3

Management also unveiled plans for a new series based on Lucasfilm's Willow -- the 1988 classic fantasy-adventure film.

There's no telling how long Disney will be able to continue profitably releasing new series and movies from these character-rich universes. But investors can expect the company's enormous intellectual property holding will be a gold mine, and the company just announced a $1-per-month price increase for Disney+ that will take effect in March -- a move the reflects both the service's popularity and the level of investment that will be required to grow it. Expect more price increases over time to offset the large sums being expended on exclusive new content.

Star Wars Obi Wan Kenobi series logo

Image source: Walt Disney.

Disney has a bright future

Back in April 2019, management set a goal for Disney+ to have between 60 million and 90 million subscribers by the end of its fiscal 2024. It's near the top of that range four years ahead of schedule.

And given the impressive slate of films and series that will debut over the next few years, investors shouldn't be surprised if Disney beats its subscriber growth goals again.

Keep in mind, Disney has a large annual budget for all film and television programming, including what it spends on broadcast and cable networks such as ABC and FX, and live-action and animated feature films. Across Disney's entire TV and film operation, which also includes license rights for television programming, Disney spent $17.6 billion in its fiscal 2019, up from $12.7 billion in fiscal 2017.

If one includes media produced for its non-streaming assets, Disney is already outspending Netflix on entertainment content, but what ultimately matters is the return on investment. Other than The Mandalorian, Disney has barely begun to unload its arsenal of entertainment brands across its streaming services, yet it already has 137 million subscribers across Hulu, ESPN+, and Disney+. Although profits will suffer as content spending ramps up, management still expects Disney+ alone to reach profitability in fiscal 2024.

Investors love what they heard about Disney's streaming plans. Disney's stock price has rebounded sharply from the lows earlier this year and is currently sitting at or near new highs. There looks to be a lucrative path for the direct-to-consumer business over the long term, as Disney doubles down on some of the most popular entertainment brands in the media industry and begins to raise the subscription fees for Disney+.

John Ballard has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Netflix and Walt Disney and recommends the following options: long January 2021 $60 calls on Walt Disney and short January 2021 $135 calls on Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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