Only in today's Wall Street mania surrounding "cord-cutting" can the Walt Disney Co.(DIS) - Get Report handily beat analysts estimates, announce a tenth consecutive quarter of double digit growth in earnings -- and still see its stock price tank.
Wall Street analysts clearly focused again on Disney's cable sports behemoth ESPN, beset with declining subscriber numbers and higher college football costs that helped drag down the company's cable unit's earnings by 6 percent.
That helped push Disney's stock price down by 7 percent immediately after the company announced its earnings, although it recovered about half the loss later. In early trading on Wednesday, shares were down close to 4%.
Disney CEO Bob Iger seems to have a new mission in life these days. Faster than Carolina Panther quarterback Cam Newton changes direction, Iger is promoting Disney's image as a company that bent on diversifying away from ESPN, for years its most powerful asset.
Since 2009, Disney's 14 percent overall growth has been driven by non-ESPN assets like its studio, parks and consumer products, Iger told analysts in a post-earnings call, with those assets growing 23 percent compared to 8 percent for its media holdings.
Iger was still trumpeting ESPN's strength, pointing to what he called an "uptick recently" in subscriber growth and predicting "it will thrive in whatever new media order we experience."
But he was clearly pointing to other areas of the company as its future growth trajectory.
"The investment in Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm and the parks are designed to diversify our growth," he said. "If you look at the profile of this company there are four divisions that can deliver growth. "
In its most recent quarter, Disney got a hypercharged growth spurt from Star Wars: The ForceAwakens, which has passed $2 billion in worldwide ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo, enough to drive record operating income at both Disney's studio and its consumer products unit.
TheStreet's Jim Cramer, portfolio manager of the Action Alerts PLUS charitable trust portfolio had this to say about Disney this morning:
"If you believe that the film division is going to keep hitting it out of the park and theme parks are going to continue to grow, then you are right to turn a blind eye to cable subs and ESPN. If you think the hit machine runs out and parks are peaking you can't."
Star Wars: The ForceAwakens will no doubt will boost DVD and online sales in the next quarter as well. A pair of 14-acre Star Wars Lands are being built in Disney's Anaheim and Orlando theme parks..
The problem is that Disney may have to find another Star Wars-sized hit every couple of quarters to continue that growth. Even with Disney's diversification efforts, the ESPN-dominated cable unit is still the company's largest, making up nearly 30 percent of its revenues and almost 28 percent of its operating earnings. With ESPN dragging it down, the company's cable unit has recorded reduced earnings in three of its last five quarters.
Worse yet, it takes hefty spending to lessen ESPN's impact on Disney's income statement. Disney spent billions to buy Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm and hundreds of millions more every time it churns out one of their blockbuster hopefuls.
Not every film gets there. In November, Disney spent more than $200 million to make and market Pixar's The Good Dinosaur, which had worldwide ticket sales of $305 million, according to Box Office Mojo. Disney shares box office receipts with theater owners, meaning that The GoodDinosaur will be at best a small moneymaker even after home video sales.
Aiming for home run films has its downside. The company lost money last year on its George Clooney film Tomorrowland, which cost $190 million to make but only brought in $209 million in worldwide ticket sales, and has another loss in store for its current film The Finest Hours, which cost an estimated $80 million to make and has sold a paltry $24.7 million in worldwide ticket sales.
Of course, none of those bets measure up to the estimated $2.4 billion it will spend for its 43 percent stake in the $5.5 billion Shanghai Disney Resort, set to open in June. And it will spend another $300 million in promotional and other costs prior to the opening, the company says.
The park would seem to be as close to a sure thing as anything Disney has ever built, located in the world's most populous nation and with state-owned enterprises as the company's partners.
Then again, the strength of the Chinese economy is hardly as certain as it was when the Chinese government approved the park in 2009.
"Big bets are their raison d'etre, whether its big budget films or theme parks, and Shanghai represents a big bet for Disney," said Laura Martin, entertainment and internet analyst with Needham & Company LLC, who has a hold recommendation on Disney's stock. "When big bets work they're mega hits, but when they don't...."
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author had a position in Disney