Twenty-First Century Fox (NASDAQ:FOX) had a lousy start to its fiscal 2016, which kicked off July 1, 2015, and you can at least partly blame The Thing, Mr. Fantastic, The Human Torch, and The Invisible Woman.
It's not that the Fantastic Four came off the comic book pages and busted up the company's headquarters. It was more that the latest film starring the famed quartet, which was released in early August, bombed badly and dragged down otherwise strong results. In the company's fiscal Q1 2016, which is the third calendar quarter of 2015, Fox reported total quarterly revenues of $6.08 billion, a decrease of $406 million, or 6%, from $6.48 billion the prior year.
The company attributes the drop to lower-than-expected returns from its theatrical slate, as well as the loss of the Shine Group production company, which has been spun off into a partnership with Apollo Global Management LLC's Endemol NV, which produces Big Brother, and Core Media Group, which owns American Idol. The losses in those areas were offset by an increase in the cable network programming segment, resulting from higher affiliate and advertising revenues.
"Our cable networks business generated strong growth in the first fiscal quarter, delivering double-digit earnings gains both domestically and internationally on sustained increases in overall affiliate fees, higher advertising revenues, and lower expenses," said Executive Chairman Rupert Murdoch in the earnings release. "Our quarterly results also reflect the expected impact of challenging comparisons for our film studio due to the timing of key releases, as well as the poor performance of The Fantastic Four."
A strengthening cable slate, combined with a lineup of movies that looks poised to be big, not only suggests the company might recover from its poor start, but it could have its best year ever.
Good things are ahead
In Fox's fiscal 2016 Q2, encompassing the last three months of 2015, it released two huge movie successes: The Martian and The Peanuts Movie. The Matt Damon-starring Martian, which has already made nearly $600 million in global box office since its October release, should get a bump from Damon's Oscar nomination for best actor, and by the film's being in the running for best picture. Peanuts may not be in the running for any major awards, but it has earned $231 million globally, according to Box Office Mojo.
In addition, the company will see an Oscar bump from best-picture nominee The Revenant, which has earned $160 million since its Christmas release, according to Box Office Mojo, but still has a way to go to recover what IMDB.com reported as a $135 million budget. Fox also has Joy, another Christmas release, in the best-picture race, and that film has already earned $84 million globally on what IMDB pegs as a $60 million budget.
And while Joy is a long shot for best picture, Jennifer Lawrence could win the Oscar for best actress and all three Oscar hopefuls should continue to have long theatrical lives because of awards-season attention. The Revenant could do especially well, given that it's the likely favorite to win the big prize.
That all adds up to a big start for the new year, and it gives the company an edge over its previous year, when it had some hits such as Spy ($235 million global) and Kingsman: The Secret Service ($414 million), and a lot of big money losers such as Fantastic Four, which pulled in a very disappointing $167 million in theaters on an estimated budget of $120 million and probably a similar ad spend. Fox also had clunkers such as Victor Frankenstein ($33 million), Unfinished Business ($14 million), and Paper Towns, which failed to capitalize on a hot young-adult market, pulling in $85 million worldwide.
In addition to the hits it has already started its fiscal year with, Fox has a number of potential huge films on tap before itsfiscal 2016 ends on the last day of June. These include January's Kung Fu Panda 3 (as distributor), February's sci-fi action adventure Deadpool, May's X-Men Apocalypse, and June's Independence Day: Resurgence.
It could all come together
In addition to fixing its movie slate, which was last year's weakness, Fox also looks to retain the strength it showed in other divisions. Its cable division should be particularly strong as the United States heads into an election cycle. That's very good news for Fox News, which should see its usually high ratings get even stronger as long as the nomination -- specifically the Republican one -- isn't wrapped up quickly.
This could be one of those years for Fox where the stars all align. The company already has a strong television division, profitable cable networks, and a movie slate that looks much improved. Of course, there's no such thing as a sure-fire box office hit, and Fox hasn't done as well as rivals such as Disney (NYSE:DIS) in minimizing risk with its theatrical slate.
The Mouse House -- with Pixar, Marvel, its own animation brand, and now Star Wars -- rarely misfires at the box office. Fox's sure things aren't quite as sure as Disney's, but this year at least they look solid, and that could help the company to a record year.