Disney's (DIS) television business may be in an uncertain transition with the decline of ESPN, but fortunately for The Mouse House, its film operation is on fire.

Beauty and the Beast generated a stunning $170 million at U.S. movie theatre over the weekend, eclipsing movie analysts' forecast for box-office sales in the range of $130 million to $150 million. Beauty's record-breaking debut for a Disney film follows a year in which the world's largest entertainment company posted the three biggest U.S. movies of 2016: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Finding Dory and Captain America: Civil War.

The animation film starring Emma Watson as Belle and Dan Stevens of Downtown Abbey as the prince marked the seventh time the company has debuted a movie that totaled more than $150 million in its opening weekend. Looking ahead, Disney will release sequels this year for its Star Wars and Avengers franchises.

For Disney CEO Bob Iger, the ability to of its movie studios to consistently generate worldwide blockbusters is providing the company some leeway as it works through a transition for its cable-TV group, led by ESPN. Disney's film group, which includes Marvel and Pixar but uses the umbrella name of Buena Vista, had box-office sales of $3 billion, or 26% of all worldwide movie sales last year. With another $180 million from outside the U.S., Beauty and the Beast is expected to top $1 billion worldwide. 

By contrast, Disney's networks group, the company's largest unit, posted a 2% decline in sales in the fourth quarter, as ESPN reported that pay-TV subscribers to the country's most popular sports channel had fallen to 88.4 million, compared with 2010, when the network was drawing fees from more than 100 million subscribers. Mindful of declining revenue at ESPN, Disney began a review of its on-air hosts and commentators with an eye toward lowering expenses to offset expensive sports rights contracts topped by the nine-year, $24-billion deal signed in 2014 with the National Basketball Association.

(This column originally appeared at 9:30 a.m. ET on Real Money, our premium site for active traders. Click here to get great columns like this from Jim Cramer and other writers even earlier in the trading day.)

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