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Why Wall Street Is Feeling Bullish as Disney Plus Blasts Off

Variety — Elaine Low

Bob Iger has presided over many launches during his 14 years as Disney CEO: a theme park in Shanghai, state-of-the-art cruise ships, “Star Wars”- and “Avatar”-themed immersive attractions and even a cinematic universe requiring billions of dollars of investment in Marvel movies.

But nothing in his tenure has drawn the level of scrutiny that has been trained on Disney Plus, the subscription streaming service set to bow Nov. 12 after more than two years in development. The venture marks a bold move by Iger that required reengineering of key Disney operations to position the company for a future dominated by direct-to-consumer platforms. He has placed a massive bet that Disney needed to make this pivot to avoid being left behind in a fast-changing market.

With his legacy on the line, Iger found some comfort in a Disney Plus tryout that the company has quietly tested in recent weeks in the Netherlands.

“The service connected with users across all four quadrants, male and female, adults and kids, driven by the breadth of our content and the affinity people of all ages have for it,” Iger told Wall Street analysts Nov. 7 on Disney’s quarterly earnings call.

If anecdotal evidence stateside is to be believed, a huge swath of Disney’s target audience of families with young children is poised to fork over $6.99 a month to subscribe to the service. It does contain, after all, a unique dominance among shows and movies familiar to families everywhere. With Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm and Disney Animation, the service is a one-stop shop for “Iron Man,” “Frozen,” “Finding Nemo,” “Moana” and, essentially, all of the “Star Wars” movies ever made. Plus, there’s the first-ever live-action “Star Wars” TV series, “The Mandalorian,” which Iger promises is unlike anything audiences have seen “on any platform.”

At launch, Disney Plus will be fortified by more than 500 movies and better than 7,500 television episodes. By year five, that vault will swell to more than 620 movies and 10,000 episodes.

But Iger’s call-out of early test data reflecting Disney Plus’ popularity among users young and old, male and female, signals internal bullishness that the fully fleshed-out platform will be able to expand its reach to millions of consumers who have left their school years far, far behind. Wells Fargo and MoffettNathanson analysts project that Disney Plus, including its promotional deal with Verizon, will be able to attract 8 million subscribers by the end of calendar 2019 — that’s about as many subs as CBS All Access and Showtime OTT collectively have now. By the end of calendar 2020, Wells Fargo analyst Steven Cahall expects 21 million subscribers to have picked up Disney Plus.

Though the success of the streaming platform may seem inevitable given the stronghold Disney has over families, the acquisition of subscribers — both the total number and the rate of customer pickup — will be a closely watched metric as the company’s traditional networks continue to grapple with subscriber losses and ratings erosion.

Disney has spent the past few years “completely transforming” the company to concentrate on creating a direct-to-consumer experience “unlike anything else in the market,” Iger said. He contends that the launch of the platform is a “huge statement about the future of media and entertainment and our continued ability to thrive in this new era.”

Wall Street is singing a much different tune in 2019 about Disney than it has in recent years. Though Netflix, which has fundamentally reframed the conversation about television consumption, remains the looming competitor, with its 158 million subscribers worldwide, it no longer seems to hold as ominous a sway over its traditional peers in entertainment.

Disney Plus is “very well positioned to have an extremely strong launch that surpasses consensus subscriber expectations,” wrote Cowen media analyst Doug Creutz in a note to clients. And with Disney venturing into Western Europe, MoffettNathanson’s Michael Nathanson, who expects the service to pick up 18 million subs by the end of fiscal 2020, goes so far as to say that he “might be underestimating the size of the first year of launch.”

“As we have vividly seen at Netflix, when moving in the right direction, momentum in subscriber growth makes those metrics investors’ sole focus,” Nathanson wrote, “and the market is sensing big things are brewing in the quarters ahead.”

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