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‘Iron Man 3′ Vanquishes Doubts Over Disney’s Marvel Buy

When Chief Executive Robert Iger opens the Walt Disney Co. (DIS) post-earnings conference call to questions late Tuesday, he won’t be asked again to justify the $4 billion he spent in 2009 to acquire Marvel Entertainment. Or, at least, he shouldn’t be.

Credit: Reuters
Credit: Reuters

The skyscraping $175 million domestic box-office take for the opening weekend of "Iron Man 3" was exceeded only by the previous Disney-Marvel release "The Avengers," which went on to collect $1.5 billion in ticket sales globally.

The latest "Iron Man" installment had already pulled in as much overseas as it is estimated to have grossed in its initial North American weekend in theaters. At its current trajectory, the latest Robert Downey Jr.-Gwyneth Paltrow save-the-world-through-cool-technology movie should reach $1 billion in global box office.

"Iron Man 3" is the final Marvel-inspired film covered under a pre-existing distribution agreement with Viacom Inc.’s (VIAB) Paramount Pictures – an arrangement that Iger wanted to get past urgently enough that he agreed to pay Paramount a guaranteed fee in 2010 for "The Avengers" and "Iron Man 3" so Disney could take control of both films’ marketing.

A big payday

Paramount was in line to earn 8% of worldwide gross for distributing "The Avengers"' and 9% for "Iron Man 3." Disney agreed to buy Paramount out of the deal for $115 million, which was cast as an advance on those distribution fees, with Paramount earning its full 8% and 9% fee if box-office sales exceed threshold levels. If "Iron Man 3" does end up earning $1 billion, Paramount will get $90 million in total, or $32.5 million more than the minimum guarantee implied in the buyout deal, by one analyst's estimate.

Disney is only too happy to pay this fee, because it means "Iron Man 3" is a larger-than-anticipated blockbuster and it gives the company a head start in embedding Marvel into its distribution platform. This also hands Disney full marketing control and potential cost synergies with other releases.

Given the runaway success of the "Iron Man" franchise – based on what was once considered a marginal comic-book hero – it’s remarkable that Iger took a bit of heat from Wall Street for the price he paid for Marvel.

Because "Spider-Man" is spoken-for under a long-term deal with Sony Corp.'s (SNE) Sony Pictures, analysts were unsure Marvel promised enough bankable characters around which to base years-long slates of movies and their attendant merchandise tie-ins. "The Avengers" and "Iron Man" have silenced the doubters. On the way are another "Thor" picture and "The Avengers 2," which will belong entirely to Disney.

Farwell to the "boy problem"

The Marvel deal – along with last year’s $4 billion acquisition of Star Wars creator Lucasfilm and the endurance of the "Cars" franchise – has also put to rest what used to be considered Disney’s “boy problem.” The enormous success beginning in the 1990s of Disney’s Princesses line of characters, along with Disney Channel hits such as “Hannah Montana,” left the company’s business skewed in the direction of young girls.

Iger, who is set to retire as CEO in 2015, leaves the entertainment divisions far more balanced by customer gender, while its cable business all but owns male eyeballs through its ESPN networks.

All this, of course, is well understood by the market, and Disney faces a relatively high bar to clear when reporting its fiscal second-quarter results. The Wall Street consensus for per-share earnings is 77 cents a share, up from 75 cents forecast for the quarter at the start of the year. Estimize.com, which crowd-sources estimates from buy-side professionals and other investors, and has tended to be more accurate than sell-side consensus, is showing an 80-cent expectation.

Disney shares, meantime, are at an all-time high. And at above 18-times anticipated 2013 profits, shares are valued at a premium to Disney's Big Media peers, which themselves trade at rich multiples of earnings after years of market outperformance. Disney is probably the highest-quality media giant based on its cable-business mix and the irreproducible nature of its character set.

Along with peers such as Time Warner Inc. (TWX), Disney is proving the value of proprietary content, showing an ability to get paid for it in a digital world and pursuing the disciplined use of capital. All this is now taken for granted by investors, who on Tuesday will no doubt grasp for insights about ESPN ad-pricing and revenue recognition rates; the fate of streaming-service Hulu.com (partly owned by Disney); and the outlook for turning around the video-game business.

Even if they won’t grill Iger on the prudence of the Marvel deal, investors will certainly need to hear some details on Disney’s next act in order for the stock to keep working.