By Lisa Richwine and Ronald Grover
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Media company Walt Disney Co reported higher profit for the quarter that ended in December, beating Wall Street expectations due to growth at sports network ESPN and the blockbuster performance of its animated hit film "Frozen."
Disney shares jumped 3.9 percent in after-hours trading on Wednesday to $74.52, up from their earlier $71.76 close on the New York Stock Exchange.
The company posted adjusted earnings per share of $1.04, according to a statement it released, exceeding the 92 cents average estimate of analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S. Net income for the quarter rose to $1.8 billion, a 33 percent gain from a year earlier.
The company's five major business units all reported higher profit, with the biggest gain at Disney's movie studio.
The unit reported a 75 percent increase in operating income to $409 million. The studio benefited from big box office grosses for "Frozen," the story of royal sisters in an icy kingdom, and Marvel superhero sequel "Thor: The Dark World." The two films have sold more than $1.5 billion worth of tickets combined worldwide.
Disney Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger said "Frozen" sales were growing as the movie just opened in China and will debut in Japan in March. The popularity of "Frozen," produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios, also is fueling toy and music sales related to the film, he said.
"This has real franchise potential," Iger told analysts on a conference call. "Expect to see continued interest in this and continued impact on the bottom line for quite a while."
The media networks unit, which includes ESPN and the Disney Channels, reported $1.5 billion in operating income for the quarter, a 20 percent gain from a year earlier. ESPN took in higher affiliate fees and advertising revenue.
"They are clearly doing a good job making brands at the studio and monetizing them," Janney Montgomery Scott analyst Tony Wible said, but he added that results at the ABC broadcasting unit "were not pretty."
Operating income fell by $84 million at the ABC division to $178 million, due to higher programming costs, lower program sales and decreased advertising revenue, Disney said.
At Disney's theme parks, higher guest spending in the United States helped the unit's profit rise by 16 percent to $671 million.
Profit at consumer products rose 24 percent to $430 million, lifted by the inclusion of licensing of products from Lucasfilm, the "Star Wars" producer Disney purchased in 2012.
Disney's interactive gaming unit posted a $55 million profit, boosted by sales of its ambitious new video game Disney Infinity. The unit is expected to post an operating loss for the January through March quarter, Chief Financial Officer Jay Rasulo said, because it doesn't have any major game releases scheduled.
He said the loss will be comparable to the unit's performance a year earlier, when it lost $54 million.
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)