Bob Iger’s second act at Disney is turning out to be just the thing the media behemoth needed to turn things around if its most recent earnings are any indication.
The company reported earnings per share of $1.02 for the first quarter, beating analyst estimates of 99 cents, but revenue was flat, falling short of expectations at $23.5 billion. Disney guided to full-year earnings per share that would trounce its 2023 full-year results by 20%.
The company’s stock rose by as much as 12% on Thursday in part because of the announcements of a $1.5 billion bet on Fortnite video game creator Epic Games, a soon-to-come ESPN streaming service, and other guidance for Disney+ to turn a profit by the end of year.
Still more important is the executive leading the charge on the initiatives, CEO Bob Iger, who previously ran the company for 15 years before retiring briefly. He returned to the top job in November 2022, and his impact has already given investors hope that Disney is close to a turnaround after two tumultuous years under former chief executive Bob Chapek.
In a Thursday note, analysts at Bank of America Research gave credit to Iger for “decisive action.” The analysts added that the 72-year-old executive was taking “bold, decisive steps,” by entering into a partnership for a new sports app with Fox and Warner Bros. Discovery, as well as by refocusing the company on its film division and expanding its investments in theme parks and gaming.
“In a little over a year since returning to the company as CEO, Bob Iger’s actions are already having an impact,” the analysts wrote.
To be sure, Iger is still facing criticism from activist investor and founding partner of Trian Partners Nelson Peltz, who has launched a proxy fight against Disney and is looking to get control of seats on the board. Peltz said last month that the company was “not being run properly,” and has complained about Disney underperforming the S&P 500.
“I made a run at them last year, they promised they were going to improve things—things got worse,” he told CNBC. “The stock went down, results got worse.”
Trian Partners did not immediately return a request for comment.
Still, Iger said in a statement that the company had “turned the corner and entered a new era…” In an interview with CNBC he also took a veiled shot at Peltz and his activist efforts.
“The last thing that we need right now is to be distracted in terms of our time, our energy, by an activist, or activists that, frankly, have a completely different agenda, and don’t understand our company, its assets, even the essence of the Disney brand.”
Disney did not respond to Fortune’s request for comment.
Iger’s infinity war
Despite the strong forward guidance, Iger has plenty of obstacles ahead of him, and a ticking clock as the pressure for him to name a successor mounts with no clear candidate in line.
Possibly the most visible challenge will be revitalizing the company’s film division after successive box office duds in 2023.
Since Disney acquired it in 2009, Marvel Studios has been a cash cow for the company, grossing $30 billion in 15 years, playing a big role in redefining the franchise movie and, arguably, rebuilding the bygone studio system of the 1930s.
Yet, the kingdom, which peaked with the nearly $2.8 billion-grossing “Avengers: Endgame,” a follow-up to the $2 billion-grossing “Avengers: Infinity War,” had indisputable bombs in 2023, notably “The Marvels,” which brought in just $46 million in domestic sales despite costing more than $200 million to produce. The company is now pinning its hopes on the summer release of “Deadpool 3” to help bring Marvel back to its glory.
And in the streaming industry, where even Iger admits the company is 10 years behind market leader Netflix, Disney has yet to turn a profit. The company managed to cut its operating losses down from the $1.1 billion it recorded last year, but is still $216 million in the hole for the division which includes Disney+, Hulu, ESPN+, and its Indian streaming platform Hotstar. Although revenue was higher due to a subscription price hike, the company lost subscribers on its flagship Disney+ streaming service.
At the same time, Iger has taken a closer look at the company’s linear media properties, including ABC, Disney Channel, FX, and National Geographic, and considered whether it might be the time to sell.
For all the roadblocks on the way to bringing Disney back in line with what shareholders expect, Iger also gave himself credit in an interview with CNBC for the progress the company has already made in overcoming the “considerable challenges” it faced at the time of his return in 2022.
“I think, if you look at the results that we just announced and all the things that we’re talking about, that is the result of a team that is motivated, that is focused,” he said.