Disney buys a new cast of thousands for €4 billion

Thu, Nov 1, 2012, 00:00

IN A VIDEO message posted online shortly after Walt Disney announced its $4 billion (€3.1 billion) purchase of Lucasfilm, Bob Iger, Disney’s chief executive, told viewers what the media group was getting for its money. “Seventeen thousand characters that inhabit several thousand planets spanning 20,000 years,” he said.

Disney had not just bought the company behind Star Wars, one of the most lucrative film series ever released; it had also acquired a virtual “universe” of intellectual property. Luke Skywalker and Han Solo are heading to the home of Mickey Mouse and the Avengers in a tie-up that strengthens Disney’s vast portfolio of intellectual property.

The group already owns Pixar, the animation powerhouse behind such movies as Toy Story, Up, and The Incredibles. Disney bought it for $7.4 billion in 2006. Three years later Marvel’s rich library of comic characters – including Spider-Man, Thor and The Incredible Hulk – was brought into the fold in a $4 billion deal

And now Iger has added Star Wars to the mix. “It’s strategically brilliant,” says Richard Greenfield, an analyst with BTIG Research. “Disney is cornering the market on intellectual property that can be leveraged across movies, television, consumer products, theme parks and video games. Wall-E, meet R2-D2.”

The worldwide success this year of The Avengers may have given Iger the impetus he needed to finish talks that began 18 months ago with George Lucas, the founder of Lucasfilm, and seal the deal. The Avengers, which has grossed $1.51 billion worldwide, underscored the value of Disney’s Marvel purchase, though in 2009 some analysts criticised Disney for overpaying in that deal. Doubts were dispelled when the film was released this summer, quickly becoming the second-highest grossing movie ever released, thanks to a vast existing audience of superhero aficionados.

Lucasfilm brings with it a similarly sized audience of passionate fans who are likely to turn out in droves to see the seventh film in the Star Wars series, which Disney said this week it would release in 2015. A new trilogy will follow and possibly more movies after that: the ready-made audience ensures that, with care, Star Wars should be a cash cow for years to come.

If there is a message in the acquisition – or in any of the three multibillion-dollar studio deals completed by Iger since becoming chief executive – it is that he wants to minimise the risks associated with filmmaking, which is a notoriously expensive, risky business.

The $7.4 billion purchase of Pixar secured a library of intellectual property: films such as Toy Story that could yield toys and action figures, and also sequels. The third film in the Toy Story series, released after Pixar had been acquired by Disney, became the highest-grossing animated film ever released, generating $1.06 billion, according to Internet Movie Database ( IMDb.com), an online resource owned by Amazon.

The purchase of Marvel also came after Marvel had proved its mettle at the box office, scoring with Iron Man and winning plaudits for its ability to deliver action-packed crowd-pleasers at an affordable price. The Avengers, produced by Marvel after the Disney acquisition, is spawning sequels: a second and third film are in the works while other sequels are also in the pipeline for Thor and Captain America. In each case, the audience is in place, propelling further sales of toys and other consumer products.

Marvel characters have “flourished” within Disney, wrote Anthony DiClemente, an analyst with Barclays, in a research note. The hope is that Star Wars will also benefit from Disney’s vast global marketing and licensing network. But there are risks: Lucas, the brains behind Star Wars, will not direct the next films, instead serving as a “creative consultant”, and while the first three films in the series were critical hits, the second set of three received lukewarm responses. “Near-term financial returns will be difficult to justify,” wrote DiClemente.

But Iger and Disney are playing a longer game. As with Marvel and Pixar, “long-term strategic benefits will crystallise over time”, he said.

The commercial success of the Star Wars films means the series has few equals in Hollywood: only the eight Harry Potter films have earned more.

The man responsible for shepherding the new Star Wars films from screenplay to screen is Alan Horn, the chairman of Walt Disney Studio: he was, until fairly recently, president and chief operating officer of Warner Brothers, where he oversaw the Harry Potter films. “First Iger snags Alan Horn this year, a master of the franchise film . . . now he brings him one of the most powerful movie franchises to exploit,” said Greenfield.

The $4 billion deal agreed by Disney and Lucas was financed with cash and shares: Disney will issue 40 million new shares – 2.2 per cent of the company – and pay Lucas about $2 billion in cash, making him the second-largest individual Disney shareholder behind the holding held by the family of the late Steve Jobs, and ahead of Isaac “Ike” Perlmutter, the chairman of Marvel Entertainment, who has 25 million shares.

Now the underlying intellectual property of Marvel and Pixar is powering Disney’s bottom line, alongside contributions from its other businesses, such as the ESPN sports cable channel or the ABC-TV network.

Iger will hope the stories and characters of the Star Wars universe deliver a similar result.– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012

The takeover: By the numbers

$140m:Sales of Star Wars toys each year

$4.54bn:Worldwide ticket sales for the Star Wars films

$11.2bn:What Disney paid for Pixar and Marvel ($7 billion for animation studio Pixar in 2006, $4.2 billion for Marvel Entertainment in 2009)

$4.05bn:What Disney agreed to pay for George Lucas's Lucasfilm

2015:Release date for the first of a new trilogy of Star Wars films