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14 years, 4 acquisitions, 1 Bob Iger: How Disney's CEO revitalized an iconic American brand

Key Points
  • Disney has earned more than $8 billion from sales of movie tickets this year, the most any studio has ever made.
  • The company's net income has increased 404% under Bob Iger, who is still set to depart the position of CEO in 2021.
  • The entertainment giant reported earnings after the close on Tuesday.
Bob Iger attends the World Premiere of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures 'Avengers: Endgame' at Los Angeles Convention Center on April 22, 2019.
Jeff Kravitz | FilmMagic, Inc | Getty Images

Disney's domination of the global box office in 2019 has been nearly 20 years in the making, under the direction of Bob Iger.

In 2005, Disney was coming off a successful decade of hit animated films — "Lion King," "Aladdin" and "Pocahontas," among others — but competition from other studios was getting stronger and the House of Mouse was starting to slip.

While releases like "Lilo and Stitch," "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "National Treasure" performed well for the company in the early '00s, it also released less memorable features like "The Country Bears," "Snow Dogs" and "Home on the Range."

Enter: Iger.

In 2005, Disney promoted its chief operating officer to the helm of the company. In the last 14 years, Iger has facilitated one of the most remarkable revitalizations of any iconic American brand.

Iger has led the charge on acquiring Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm and, most recently, 20th Century Fox. The first three acquisitions alone have earned Disney more than $33.8 billion at the global box office, not including production and marketing costs or the benefit of merchandise and theme park extensions.

Taika Waititi and Natalie Portman speak at the Marvel Studios Panel during 2019 Comic-Con International at San Diego Convention Center on July 20, 2019 in San Diego, California.
Kevin Winter | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

As of Sunday, the company has earned more than $8 billion from sales of movie tickets, the highest any studio has made in a year, and there's still five months left to go. A large portion of that gross is from "Avengers: Endgame" which has become the highest-grossing film of all time, surpassing "Avatar."

In the U.S., Disney has made $2.6 billion from its films. It's closest competitor, Comcast's Universal, has made $987 million so far this year.

Disney's 38% of the total U.S. box office this year marks the high point of a Hollywood strategy now a decade-and-a-half in the making, and that began at a time when the company's films captured about 10% of the market.

"Iger is going to be viewed historically as a major mogul," said Jason Squire, professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and editor of "The Movie Business Book."

In the year that Iger was named CEO, Disney made $2.5 billion in net income. Last year, the company's net income was $12.6 billion, a 404% increase. Similarly, Disney stock has risen exponentially. Shares of Disney are up 450% from $25 per share in 2005 to nearly $140 in August 2019.

"Disney is totally different than what it used to be 10 or 12 years ago," said Doug Stone, president of Box Office Analyst. "Iger came in and was laser-focused on increasing profitability."

To infinity and beyond

In his first earnings call as CEO, Iger was quick to address how he planned to put his mark on the company.

"We intend to be disciplined in our approach to our current cost structure and our investments," he said. "This investment approach extends not only to our internal development, but also to how we approach acquisitions. As we have stated in the past, we do not feel the need to acquire assets just to get bigger or simply to wade into new space. We are prepared to move wisely and quickly in order to respond to rapid changes in the marketplace."

Within two months of that call, Iger announced that Disney would acquire Pixar Animation Studios for $7.4 billion.

New Toy Story Land at Disney's Hollywood Studio
Source: Courtesy Visit Orlando

Since Pixar's first film "Toy Story" debuted in 1995, it has earned more than $14 billion at the global box office. Around $11 billion of that has come after Disney's acquisition.

But when Disney first announced this acquisition, analysts were skeptical. Some even felt that Disney had paid too much for the animation studio.

"Seems that all those choices, in retrospect, were great choices," Squire said.

Pixar was already a well-established and prestigious brand. In the years before Disney acquired the company, Pixar had earned two Academy Awards for best animated feature for "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles."

Since 2007, Pixar has earned another seven — for "Ratatouille," "WALL-E," "Up," "Toy Story 3," "Brave," "Inside Out" and "Coco."

Simply buying a brand like Pixar didn't ensure Disney's success. The company still had to continue to produce good content. Disney kept John Lasseter in command at Pixar, and when Lasseter left in 2018 after a sexual harassment scandal, it hired Pete Docter and Jennifer Lee to helm the studio.

Docter had been with the company for decades and directed "Monsters, Inc.," "Up," "Inside Out" and the upcoming "Soul." Lee joined Disney Animation Studios, a separate animation house at Disney, in 2011 and co-wrote "Wreck-It Ralph." She also co-directed "Frozen," which went on to win an Academy Award.

"You have to give Disney credit, not just for the acquisition but for the execution," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore. "Had other companies bought these brands, the market share might would have been split up, but we don't know what other studios would have done with these brands."

Assembling Earth's mightiest heroes

That same sentiment goes for Disney's acquisition of Marvel.

Marvel Studios had taken a big risk in green lighting "Iron Man." At the time, Marvel had just entered into a massive financing contract with Merrill Lynch to fund a slate of films and a lot was hanging on whether the film would resonate with audiences.

They had tapped Robert Downey Jr., an actor who was fixing for a comeback after years of drug abuse and a brief stint in prison, as well as Jon Favreau, a director, who at the time was best known for his work on the Christmas comedy "Elf."

In its opening weekend in 2008, "Iron Man" snared nearly $100 million at the box office, before going on to garner just under $600 million worldwide.

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'Avengers: Endgame' just shattered multiple box office records

From the beginning, Disney's philosophy has been "cradle to grave," Squire said. The company catered to children with its animated features, the Disney theme park was a family destination, and its cruise line, while also family-friendly, could also be a place for older generation Disney fans to enjoy.

What Disney was missing was the teenage and young adult demographics.

In 2009, Disney made its move. While Marvel had already contracted several films with Paramount and Universal as part of its Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iger closed on a deal to purchase the comic book company for around $4 billion.

The company kept Kevin Feige, president of production for Marvel Studios, on board. He continues to run the studio today.

"This is perfect from a strategic perspective," Iger said at the time. "This treasure trove of over 5,000 characters offers Disney the ability to do what we do best."

It seems he was right.

Since releasing its first Disney-produced Marvel movie in 2012, the company has earned more than $18.2 billion at the global box office. And it's on its way to making billions more.

At San Diego Comic-Con last month, Marvel announced its upcoming slate of films and TV shows that expand on the 23 movies already in the MCU.

"Marvel ensured the future of the company," Dergarabedian said.

One with the Force

In the same year that Disney released its first produced Marvel feature, it also snatched up another lucrative brand. In October 2012, Iger announced that Disney had purchased Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion.

After three years of production, the company released "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" in 2015. It was a continuation of the original "Star Wars" trilogy from the late '70s and early '80s, taking place 30 years after the fall of the Empire.

It made more than $2 billion globally.

Todd Wawrychuk | Disney Parks

Since 2015, Disney has released four "Star Wars" films and garnered nearly $5 billion at the global box office. The final film in the Skywalker saga is set to be released in December.

Of course, these receipts don't account for the estimated $200 million to $300 million Disney shelled out per film in production costs or the money spent on its robust marketing campaigns to promote each release.

However, Disney has also made money from DVD, BluRay and digital sales, not to mention licensing agreements for the brand and sales of its own Star Wars apparel, toys and novelizations.

Ahead of the release of "The Force Awakens" in 2015, Disney's earnings got a boost from sales of Star Wars merchandise on Force Friday, a September event designed to excite fans of the franchise to purchase newly released goods.

Not to mention, Disney has two Star Wars Lands theme park lands, one open in California and one in Florida due to open at the end of August.

Meet the Simpsons

In March, Disney closed on its biggest acquisition yet: a $71 billion deal for 20th Century Fox.

Buying the studios behind "The Simpsons" and X-Men allows Disney to better compete with companies such as Amazon and Netflix for viewership and dollars as the streaming competition intensifies.

Disney is set to release its own streaming service, Disney+, in November. Along with its own library of content, Disney now has all of Fox's entertainment assets.

The company has already said all episodes of "The Simpsons" will appear on the services on day one. Other 20th Century Fox titles on Disney+ will include "The Sound of Music," "The Princess Bride" and "Malcolm in the Middle."

"The coin of the realm is IP," Squire said.

Little is known about how Disney plans on using Fox properties in the future. It has added films that were already in production or set for release to its box office slate, but hasn't announced any Disney-made Fox films or TV shows as of yet.

However, Disney has revealed that it will produced all four "Avatar" sequels which were green lit by Fox several years ago.

Outside of the film space, Disney has faced headwinds in recent years, including at cash cow ESPN. Viewership has been on the decline, relationships between cable operators and networks are tense, and the situation remains unstable as more people ditch cable for streaming services.

Disney has created ESPN+, a streaming version of its TV network. The company has said that it will bundle ESPN+ with the upcoming Disney+ and Hulu, but the company is being forced to invest heavily in streaming without an immediate path to profits. It has seen fast growth in the ESPN+ service since launching last year, adding more than two million subscribers.

Disney shares fell when it reported earnings after the close on Tuesday. While revenue was up from the year-ago quarter in Studio Entertainment (+33%), Media Networks (+21%), and Parks (+7%), the direct-to-consumer segment saw revenue of $3.86 billion but operating losses increased to $553 million from $168 million. Disney cited Hulu and increased investments in ESPN+ and Disney+ streaming services, and Iger said on a call with analysts that the bundle will cost $12.99 and launch in November. Even the movie studio's impressive performance took a hit on the disappointing box office results for "Dark Phoenix."

What's next for Iger?

Iger has said that he is definitely stepping down from his post at the company in 2021.

"I'm expecting my contract to expire at the end of 2021," Iger said during Disney's investor day in April. "And I was going to say 'and this time I mean it,' but I've said it before. I've been CEO since October of 2005 and as I've said many times, there's a time for everything and 2021 will be the time for me to finally step down."

Iger has extended his contract with Disney twice during his tenure. Once in 2018 and then through 2021, but it was contingent on the Fox deal closing. Since that merger has wrapped up, Iger will remain with the company as the head executive for the next two years.

"This success was not overnight," Dergarabedian said. "Disney has had to go through many permutations, but it's now got an unbeatable combination of brands."

This story has been updated to include Disney's earnings results reported after the close on Tuesday.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC.

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