Disney Still Getting Drenched

Disney's (DIS) board has said that management is on the right track.

But, as one may be reminded by Disney's recent setbacks, the company's directors have scrupulously avoided saying when they expect Disney's metaphorical train to reach its destination.

That leaves investors wondering how bad present and future disappointments will have to get at Disney before Michael Eisner, who last month exited his post as Disney's board chairman, loses his remaining responsibilities as CEO.

And certainly, Wall Street has high-profile disappointments to consider, including two weak movie releases in two weeks and continuing uncertainty at the company's ABC television network as the upfront ad-selling season approaches. Now the question is how soon the negatives will be offset by tangible pluses, and when critics of the company will stop piling on.

On Monday, Disney's shares fell 55 cents, to $25.70, down nearly 10% from the 52-week high the stock hit in February after disclosure of Comcast's ( CMCSA) unsolicited bid for the media and entertainment conglomerate.

Char-Broiled

The latest example of Disney's misplaced optimism appears to be The Alamo, a movie that Michael Eisner said earlier this month was getting "unbelievable word-of-mouth."

An epic movie that ended up neck-and-neck, in weekend box-office performance, with the low-budget comedy Johnson Family Vacation, it opened one week after the similarly weakly performing Home on the Range, the animated feature about heroic cows that appears to be the swan song for two-dimensional animation at Disney.

The disappointing performances of these two movies, along with that of the Mideastern horse-racing tale Hidalgo in March, threaten Disney's ability to meet earnings expectations, says Fulcrum Global Partners analyst Richard Greenfield. In a Monday report, Greenfield said it was likely that Disney would have to take a write-off for the fiscal second quarter ended March 31. (Thomson First Call's expectations are currently for 20 cents in earnings per share.) Not only is the 98-cent EPS consensus for fiscal 2004 (ending Sept. 30) under pressure, writes Greenfield, but a weak 2004 box office will likely translate into poor relative performance of home video in fiscal 2005.

Disney doesn't agree. "Given the performance we're seeing in our businesses, we remain confident in our ability to deliver attractive growth in our earnings," the company said late Monday. "In fact, assuming a continuation of the favorable economic conditions and trends we're seeing, we believe that we will deliver earnings growth from continuing operations of more than 40 percent for this fiscal year, versus the $0.65 per share we reported last year."

Disney's failure at the box office, opines Greenfield, will counterintuitively result in near-term gain in Disney's stock, since shareholders may wishfully think the movie problems will result in more-than-token management change and give Comcast's bid some greater chance of success. Greenfield has a neutral rating on Disney; his firm hasn't done banking for the company.

Schwab SoundView analyst Jordan Rohan says he expects Disney to take an $80 million impairment charge for The Alamo in the March quarter. (Like Greenfield, he believes that the charge, under proper accounting principles, will come in the first calendar quarter, despite the movie's release in the second.) Adding that to Rohan's expectation of a $70 million combined charge for Home on the Range and The Ladykillers, but offsetting it with the performance of Finding Nemo on home video, Rohan is cutting 3 cents from his first-quarter earnings estimate for the company. Rohan has an outperform rating on the stock and a $31 price target; his firm hasn't done banking for Disney.

Tubular

Looking at Disney's ABC TV network, Morgan Stanley's Rich Bilotti predicted a weak performance in the upfront ad-sales market, saying that the company likely would have lower audience guarantees and thus lower revenue per spot sold in the upfront market. Morgan Stanley has done banking for Disney; the firm had no available rating on its disclosure Web site.

Who will be determining Disney's future, and whether it will be Comcast, remains unclear. Rohan, for one, says the likelihood of a Comcast takeover of Disney increases as Disney's operating performance worsens.

Banc of America's Douglas Shapiro wrote Monday, however, that he increasingly believes Comcast will walk away from its Disney bid. The analyst says that given that the spread between Comcast's offer and Disney's stock price is unlikely to narrow, Comcast has limited ability to raise its bid, and Disney's board, which turned down Comcast before, isn't likely to reconsider. Shapiro raised his price target on Comcast from $37 to $41, and raised his rating on the stock from neutral to buy.

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