5 of 6 Studios Post Profit Declines in 2012

Christian Bale in "The Dark Knight Rises"
Christian Bale in "The Dark Knight Rises"
 Warner Bros.

Despite strong box office and home entertainment stabilizing, the studio divisions of sector giants recorded lower profitability - except for NBCUniversal.

Walt Disney Co.
Film unit operating profit: $543 million, down 17.2 percent from $656 million in 2011

Disney's filmed entertainment operating profit dropped for the second year in a row in 2012, coming in at $543 million, down from $656 million in 2011 -- even though the studio had the year's biggest theatrical release in Marvel's The Avengers, which earned $1.5 billion worldwide.

But Disney also had a big box-office flop with the effects-laden sci-fi movie John Carter, for which the company ended up booking an operating loss of $200 million during its second fiscal quarter, which was the first calendar quarter of 2012.

Like in some other quarters, home entertainment results late in the year had a difficult comparison due to 2011 releases Cars 2 and The Lion King 3D.

"Studio Entertainment operating income was down in the [final] quarter due to declines in our home entertainment and theatrical businesses, despite an increase in television and subscription video-on-demand distribution revenue," Disney CFO Jay Rasulo said in summarizing a key trend.

While theatrical revenue was higher in the quarter, he cited "higher distribution and film amortization costs."

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Disney last year brought in former top Warner Bros. executive Alan Horn as studio boss to replace Rich Ross after the John Carter loss. And Disney CEO Robert Iger on a recent earnings conference call predicted a strong year.

"It’s a strong, diverse slate of movies that we are very excited about," including Marvel’s Iron Man 3, he said. "This summer we’re looking forward to Disney/Pixar’s Monsters University in June as well as The Lone Ranger, an extraordinary action adventure starring Johnny Depp, which opens in July. In November, we’ve got Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World as well as Disney Animation's next adventure, Frozen, and we’ll close out the year with Saving Mr. Banks, the story behind one of our most beloved classics, Mary Poppins with Tom Hanks as Walt Disney."

Sony Corp.
Film unit operating profit: $434 million, down 43.1 percent from $763 million in 2011

Sony Pictures Entertainment led all other Hollywood companies in worldwide and U.S. theatrical market share in 2012, with $4.4 billion in global and $1.8 billion in U.S. ticket sales.

But Sony Corp.'s "pictures" unit recorded an operating profit drop to $434 million last year, following a big 95 percent gain in 2011. That proved again that box-office revenue alone isn't a reliable way to forecast film unit profitability, especially with the cost of marketing and releasing movies ballooning in recent years.

In Sony's case, though, the year-ago profit figure was boosted by $278 million from the sale of Spider-Man merchandising rights. Excluding that, the year-over-year drop would have been much smaller: 10.5 percent.

Sony's big theatrical successes of 2012 included James Bond movie Skyfall, which drew more than $1 billion in global grosses, and The Amazing Spider-Man.

Other hits included Men in Black 3, Hotel Transylvania and 21 Jump Street. Spider-Man and MiB 3 also were among the company's strongest home entertainment releases.

Film unit operating profit: $217 million, down 10.3 percent from $242 million in 2011

Viacom's Paramount Pictures celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2012, but the company's film segment reported a profit drop following a big 128 percent increase in 2011. Cost management partially helped offset fewer releases and lower box-office revenue in 2012 and tough comparisons with 2011 hit Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

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The mix of releases and timing played a key role. Specifically, calendar year 2011 included Transformers: Dark of the Moon and the opening weeks of Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol.

In the final quarter, DreamWorks Animation’s Rise of the Guardians, the animation studio's final film distributed by Paramount, also underperformed expectations.

Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman and studio boss Brad Grey have focused on tentpole releases that can become franchises.

Late in 2012, Dauman lauded the studio’s “remarkable slate” for the fiscal year that started in October, which will cover much of calendar year 2013. He particularly highlighted “the return of key tentpole franchises, such as Star Trek, and the launch of new ones, including World War Z” and a mix of “star-driven tentpoles, prestige films and the type of highly targeted, high-margin releases it pioneered with the Paranormal Activity franchise.” He added: “The studio continues to demonstrate significant long-term progress in enhancing its [profit] margins.”

Film unit operating cash flow (the metric the company uses): $79 million, up 229 percent from $24 million in 2011

Under Comcast's leadership, NBCUniversal has focused on turning around its broadcast business and ensuring improved film unit results. For 2012, the entertainment company reported $79 million in film operating cash flow, the profitability metric it uses. That was more than three times the $24 million recorded in 2011 thanks to better box office, driven by such successes as surprise hit Ted, which also brought in strong home video sales, partially offset by an increase in the amortization of film costs.

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The flop Battleship apparently wasn't a big-enough drag to hurt the overall picture.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts in his year-end earnings call lauded the "stronger box-office performance in film" and said, "We’re also reinvigorating our franchises in the film business."

Comcast CFO Michael Angelakis highlighted that 2012 film revenue rose 12 percent to $5.2 billion "driven by higher theatrical revenue from the strong box-office performance of Ted, The Lorax and Les Miserables, as well as higher home entertainment and content licensing revenue."

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