During today’s call with Wall Street analysts to discuss third-quarter earnings, Disney CEO Bob Iger offered some of his most extensive comments to date on the company’s high-stakes effort to compete with Netflix in the subscription streaming arena.
The topic dominated the half-hour Q&A portion of the call. Iger repeatedly emphasized that the approach to the streaming service would be a gradual one that will not resemble the flood-the-zone, saturation tack taken by Netflix.
“We don’t have to be in the absolute volume game,” he said, citing the strength of properties in the stable, including Marvel, Lucasfilm and Pixar, plus soon-to-be added Fox brands such as Avatar, X-Men and Deadpool. “It’s not as though the cupboard will be bare. … But it takes time to build the kind of content library that we intend to build.” Pricing, he said a couple of times during the call, will reflect this lower-volume offering, though he offered no specific guidance. (Most industry and Wall Street observers expect Disney to try to undercut Netflix, which would put it somewhere in the $6 to $8 monthly range.)
Once Disney’s $71.3 billion deal closes to acquire the majority of 21st Century Fox, it will control 60% of Hulu, which will “fit very significantly into our app strategy,” along with the $5-a-month ESPN+ and the Disney-branded service, Iger noted. Don’t expect a bundle of those three, as some have predicted, he added. “We don’t really want to go to market with an aggregation play that replicates the multi-channel environment that exists today,” Iger explained. “We feel consumers are more interested in making decisions on their own in terms of what kind of packages they want. So rather than one giant aggregated play, we’re going to bring to market a sports play, a Disney play, and then of course there’s Hulu.”
Pressed by Todd Juenger, an analyst with Sanford Bernstein, about the reality of many properties from Lucasfilm, Marvel and Pixar not being available on the new Disney service, Iger shrugged. The company always knew that some properties would be “encumbered” at launch, he said, such as Star Wars, Episode VII — The Force Awakens. The upcoming ninth and Star Wars installment, though, will be available. That goes for all of the other in a loaded 2019 release slate, which Iger rattled off as a way to emphasize the forward-looking view of how streaming could benefit the company. Among the titles are Captain Marvel, new takes on Dumbo, and The Lion King, Toy Story 4, a new Avengers entry and Frozen 2.
“We’re going to make sure to market it” in a way that consumers understand the gaps, Iger said, and those gaps should disappear over time and also be overcome by a raft of new originals based on familiar IP. His comments underscored the company’s long view on streaming, which allows for a slow but gradual momentum to build.
During his scripted remarks, the Disney boss also tossed bouquets at Fox Searchlight and 20th Century Fox Film, though he faced no analysts questions on it and did not offer specifics as to the plan to integrate the two units. Many in Hollywood are keenly interested in his stance on that matter, especially with thousands of jobs hanging in the balance. There is extra intrigue because both Fox groups traffic in R-rated fare, unlike squeaky-clean Disney, whose last R film was the DreamWorks/Participant-produced The Fifth Estate in 2013.
Searchlight is a “creative engine we respect and admire a great deal,” Iger said. With its recent success, capped by The Shape of Water‘s Best Picture Oscar win, “it’s hard to argue that Searchlight needs any help from anyone. Our strategy is to give the studio what it needs to continue to do what it does best and to also expand the brand’s high-quality brand into the direct-to-consumer space with original television and film projects.”
As for Big Fox, Iger said its roster of properties would “enhance and accelerate our DTC strategy.” He added, “I want to be clear. We remain supportive and enthusiastic about the theatrical movie experience. It’s a vital part of our company.”
The spring launch of ESPN’s stand-alone subscription OTT service, ESPN+, has yielded “encouraging” results, Iger said. “It’s early days, but conversion rates from free trials to paid subscriptions have been strong and subscription growth is exceeding our expectations.”
Asked to quantify those expectations, he demurred, describing them as “relatively modest” in the larger scheme of the streaming world “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” he added. “We feel great about it.”
On a related note, Iger said hitting the gas on the company’s OTT strategy would not create any friction in carriage talks with MVPDs — with three of which Disney faces major renewals in the coming months. “There’s a reality that has set in that the business is changing,” he said. “Consumer habits have changed … OTT is here and it’s real.”
Iger faced only one question at the end of the call about the company’s participation in the Fox bidding against Comcast for control of European pay-TV giant Sky. Iger said he had “nothing further to add” to Fox’s recent statements. Earlier in the day, Fox bought additional time to prepare a sweetened bid, though any increase would have to be approved by Disney.