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Analysis: Fewer movies in theaters? Big Media turns focus to streaming video

Lisa Richwine and Helen Coster
·4 mins read

By Lisa Richwine and Helen Coster

(Reuters) - Walt Disney Co's <DIS.N> revamp of its media and entertainment businesses represents Hollywood's latest move to prioritize streaming media, raising questions about how much big media companies will continue to support movie theaters.

On Monday, Disney said it had restructured its media and entertainment businesses to accelerate growth of Disney+ and other streaming services as consumers increasingly gravitate to digital viewing. AT&T Inc <T.N> and Comcast Corp <CMCSA.O> have made similar moves.

Disney is facing pressure from activist investor Daniel Loeb, founder of hedge fund Third Point, to increase funding to Disney+ and the rest of its streaming businesses.

While Loeb applauded Disney's restructuring on Monday, a person familiar with the hedge fund's thinking said Third Point is urging Disney to take more feature films directly to streaming platforms, or to put them in theaters and on Disney+ on the same day.

Disney, the company behind blockbuster movie franchises including "Avengers" and "Star Wars," said it was committed to theaters when it announced the restructuring. The changes separate creative divisions from the distribution unit that will send programming to cinemas, streaming or other platforms, though Disney said they work in "close collaboration."

Chief Executive Bob Chapek, speaking to CNBC television, described the shift as "tilting the scale pretty dramatically" toward streaming.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed consumer habits and driven more viewers to Netflix Inc <NFLX.O> and other digital video services. It shuttered theaters and forced experimentation with release patterns, upending the traditional practice of keeping a movie exclusively in theaters for a window of roughly 90 days before sending it to other platforms.

To meet the need for fresh streaming content during a worldwide halt in production, Disney made its remake of the animated classic "Mulan" available for purchase in the United States on Disney+ over the Labor Day weekend, and in movie theaters in a handful of other countries. It will debut the Pixar animated movie "Soul" on Disney+ on Christmas Day, rather than in theaters in November, as originally planned.

'PARALYZED'

Part of the calculus will hinge on how the cinema business emerges from the pandemic. There is concern now about how many movie theaters will survive. Theater chain AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc <AMC.N> said on Tuesday it would run out of cash as early as the end of this year if conditions did not improve.

"Wonder Woman" director Patty Jenkins is among dozens of top Hollywood names urging U.S. Congress to provide financial aid to help cinemas weather pandemic shutdowns.

"Everybody is absolutely paralyzed and trying to read what is going on at every level and how that is going to trickle down into the way people watch movies," Jenkins said in a recent interview.

The total number of films released annually already has been falling. Major studios released 124 films in theaters in 2019, down from 147 in 2015, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.

But even as investors have rewarded Netflix with high valuations for its single-minded focus on making content exclusively for subscribers, Wall Street analysts questioned the financial viability of traditional studios doing the same.

A premium video-on-demand model like the one Disney used for "Mulan" will not work for a studio’s biggest, most ambitious films, LightShed Partners analyst Rich Greenfield said in September, noting that a $2 billion box-office film can generate over $800 million in profit to a studio.

"While we remain confident that streaming economics in totality are far superior long-term than traditional movie/TV economics ... nothing can achieve the per-picture economics that Disney is able to generate through a global theatrical release," Greenfield wrote on Tuesday.

That "makes it very hard economically for Disney to pivot away from" current movie windows in theaters, he said.

Releasing more films that were meant for theaters directly to streaming "would be a material step down in content revenues from the level generated by their current business structure, but likely even a greater drop in profits," MoffettNathanson analyst Michael Nathanson wrote on Oct. 1.

Chapek hinted during a CNBC interview on Monday that changes to its theatrical model could be coming. He said details would be unveiled at an investor presentation on December 10.

(Reporting by Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles, Helen Coster in New York and Svea Herbst-Bayliss in Boston; Editing by Kenneth Li and Matthew Lewis)