Category: The Disney-Lucasfilm Deal

Most Important Story of the Week – 8 November 19: Franchise Lessons from all the Game of Thrones and Star Wars News

What happens when one week has so much news and the next has very little? Well, you roll one topic over. So the “most important story” this week is last week’s runner-up. 

The Most Important Story of the Week – Game of Thrones and Star Wars Franchise Lessons

Last week began and ended with dueling Star Wars and Game of Thrones news….

– First, HBO cancelled it’s “Age of Heroes” prequel series for Game of Thrones.
– Second, HBO announced another prequel series for Game of Thrones, based on the book Fire & Blood about the Targaryens.
– Third, David Benioff & DB Weiss—the Game of Thrones showrunners—had left the Star Wars prequel they planned to make

Since HBO Max sucked up the oxygen out of the entertainment biz room last week, I didn’t really have time to examine what the big franchise moves meant for entertainment. Which is a shame; monetarily, these announcements would have been the most important story in most weeks.

Here’s why: both of these franchises are worth billions. As I’ve written extensively on here and here. And it’s not too bold to say that how HBO manages Game of Thrones and how Disney manages Star Wars will play a key role in either launching successful streaming services or failing (and losing billions).

Today, let’s look beyond how fans will feel about these announcements, to what we can learn from a business strategy perspective. Meanwhile, Marvel will keep coming up, because it’s the most well-run franchise in the game right now.

Business Issue 1: Pilots Are Great Investments

You’ve probably heard the old story that Seinfeld tested very poorly as a pilot. Development executives bring this up all the time when a pilot inevitably gets bad reviews. “Well, Seinfeld tested poorly too!” It ignores obvious counters that most pilots that test poorly ended up being poor TV series. Conversely, quality pilots are highly correlated with successful series. Take Game of Thrones. Sure, the initial pilot tested poorly, but the reshot pilot is one of the greatest in TV. The Breaking Bad pilot was similarly fantastic. 

This is why, I praised HBO for making a pilot for their “Age of Heroes” GoT prequel. You’re about to invest maybe a hundred million dollars in a TV series. Make a pilot and see if it’s good. Except then HBO went straight-to-series on their House of the Dragon prequel series. Sigh. Essentially, HBO Max made a good decision (make a pilot, it tested poorly, don’t go forward) and then made a bad decision (go straight to series). 

When it comes down to it, overall going straight-to-series is just another example of how prices are increasing for distributors without actually increasing the top line. It increases the upfront costs (full season commitments to talent) while decreasing the hit rate (no pilot data to kill duds early). HBO feels like it has no choice, though; since Netflix and Amazon are pushing everything straight-to-series, to stay competitive, everyone has to make everything straight-to-series.

Creative Issue 2: The Source of Game of Thrones Greatness

Still, there may be business logic for why HBO chose one pilot over the other here to go straight-to-series. Looking at what made Game of Thrones great, a lot of things contributed from the showrunners crafting a great story to Peter Dinklage just owning it. But if I had to pick the single biggest driver, it would be George R.R. Martin. Yes, Benioff & Weiss successfully managed a monster TV show, but at its core they wrote in an extremely fleshed out world of George R.R. Martin’s creation.

As a Game of Thrones fanatic, I’ve read everything GRRM has written on the series. Including a history book and the Targaryens Fire & Blood book (the one that is the basis for the straight-to-series order). If you asked me, what has a more fleshed out world, the Targaryen reign or the “Age of Heroes”, it’s the former by a landslide. (The Dunk & Egg books seem like a no brainer for a limited series as well.)

If that’s where you think the source of GoT’s success comes from, that makes the decision for which prequel series to order much easier. Go with the “Targaryens” every time. It has literally hundreds of pages of source material that will require much less from its showrunners than the “Age of Heroes”, which has about a dozen pages of material to draw from. 

Even in Disney’s own house, as the latest departure shows, they can’t  learn any of the lessons about leveraging your source material. Star Wars decided to toss out all it’s source material after the Lucasfilm acquisition. Specifically, the dozens of books in its “Legends” universe. (I’ve, uh, read all these too.) Instead, Kathleen Kennedy and team burned it all to the ground, and as a result had to come up with new stories from scratch. (Sometimes these stories had a vague connection to the Legends universe, but emphasis on vague.) Which makes the hit rate much lower than what Marvel is doing. It also requires A-List directors–or at least Kathleen Kennedy wants to work with A-List talent–which makes business point four below much harder.

Alternatively, Kevin Feige leaned into Marvel’s history. This source material is part of the reason Marvel has been so successful. It’s not like Kevin Feige is writing all these Marvel stories from scratch. He’s just adapting the best Marvel stories of all time, like Civil War or The Infinity Saga. 

Business and Creative Issue 3: Avoid Bad Villains

Multiple friends—all Game of Thrones fans; all unsatisfied with the finale season—complained to me about the prequel series being about the rise of the White Walkers. The logic goes, “They were dispatched so quickly and easily, I don’t want to see them in another series.” Yes, this is an unrepresentative sample size, but it speaks to very real creative issues.

If that sentiment showed up in the testing—and I believe HBO tested the latest pilot with focus groups—then that alone could explain why the prequel didn’t move forward. Doubly so if combined with the lack of source material on the “Age of Heroes”. 

There is a business lesson here too, one about coordination and intertwining storylines. If the ending of the White Walker story was more satisfying for viewers, then maybe my friends message saying, “Man, I can’t wait to see the beginning to that.” Instead, the abrupt/rushed downfall of the White Walkers in a dark episode of television fundamentally ended the ability to create another revenue stream for HBO/AT&T. 

Star Wars faces this too. The last trilogy create a brand new bad guy (Snoke), then [spoiler alert] killed him off, and is currently debating if the big bad guy–Kylo Ren–will become a good guy. Notably, in Avengers Thanos stayed bad the whole time. And now Star Wars may bring back Emperor Palpatine. In other words, after one of the best bad guys of all time–Darth Vader–Star Wars doesn’t know what to do.

Business Issue 4: Franchise Management is Hard. Really Hard.

The challenge for a network like HBO or a studio like Disney is managing not just the creative for one series, but thinking how the movements/plots in one TV series impact the larger business. Or one film impact the larger brand perception.

My current working theory is that Warner-Media doesn’t have as ingrained “franchise management” as a skill as someone like Disney. Disney has TV series and movies for Star Wars, Marvel, Disney animation and Pixar. Every character worth their salt has teams dedicated to manage that brand, building value over time. They really are experts at it and integrating it everywhere.

Compare that to GoT. Game of Thrones acts like an HBO property first and foremost. So HBO gets first crack at all the TV shows, but then nothing else happens. (Part of this is due to the fact that George R.R. Martin still owns the rights, but obviously AT&T should try to buy those.) We see the same thing with Harry Potter going the other way: lots of movies, no TV shows. (And slipping viewership.) DC probably has the most things being made, but with little connection between the movies and TV shows, just volume. (And a comic strategy of rebooting the whole thing every five or so years.)

This is likely the key issue with Lucasfilm too, in that top tier talent doesn’t want to sacrifice their creative vision for the larger universe’s needs. Which begs the question, “Why doesn’t Kennedy bring in creatives who will fulfill her vision?” That would mean not flashy names–like Benioff & Weiss–but directors who get the job done.

Really, only one person has figured out how to reliably do this right now.

The Reality: Marvel/Kevin Feige is the Best at Franchise Management Right Now

If you take all the lessons from Game of Thrones and Star Wars above, Marvel does each one well. Pilots? Feige does test shoots for controversial films to make sure they’ll work. (He did with Ant-Man, for example.) Source material? Yep, he picks the best stories and adapts them well. Good bad guys? Yep, Feige finds fresh bad guys each film. (Though arguably kills them off too quickly.) Coordination? Um, yeah we just saw that with Avengers: Endgame. (He found a set of directors who shared his vision, by the way, in the Russo brothers and gave them four huge films.)

Finally, he keeps the quality high. That’s a unique skill he has. (Unique as in one of maybe 5 folks in Hollywood.) Which is a credit to him. Marvel was barely anything when this century started. But by giving Kevin Feige the reins, his successful stewardship has created tons of value. And now he’s taking over TV whereas HBO/HBOMax is trying to figure it out and Lucasfilm fumbles for the next creative vision.

Other Contenders for Most Important Story – Apple TV+ Launched

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Disney-Lucasfilm Deal Part XI: Disney Will Make A 107% Return on Lucasfilm Acquisition (And Other Conclusions)

(This is Part XI of a multi-part series answering the question: “How Much Money Did Disney Make on the Lucasfilm deal?” Previous sections are here:

Part I: Introduction & “The Time Value of Money Explained”
Appendix: Feature Film Finances Explained!
Part II: Star Wars Movie Revenue So Far
Part III: The Economics of Blockbusters
Part IV: Movie Revenue – Modeling the Scenarios
Part V: The Analysis! Implications, Takeaways and Cautions about Projected Revenue
Part VI: The Television!
Part VII: Licensing (Merchandise, Like Toys, Books, Comics, Video Games and Stuff)
Part VIII: The Theme Parks Make The Rest of the Money
Part IX: Bibbidy-Bobbidy-Boo: Put It Together and What Do You Got?
Part X: You’ve Been Terminated: Terminal Values Explained and The Last Piece of the Model

This series has been the equivalent of an all day trip to Disneyland for me. Arriving when the park gates open, I stayed all day, walking the park and going on every ride. I’m exhausted, and now all I have to do is wait for the fire works. My feet are killing me, but I’m almost there. So yes, today is the fireworks of this process, though the rides (articles) have been great along the way.

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday building our exhaustive models, so let’s  “generate insights” from the data, since insights are a hot business term. I’ll start with the big numbers. I’m going to do this as a Q&A.

What is the Bottom Line, Up Front?

Or “Bottom Line, 10 Parts Later”? 

Here it is: Disney will NOT lose money on this deal, even discounting for the time value of money. So yes, the people claiming success on behalf of Disney are indeed correct. They crushed it.

To show this, here are the totals for the deal. But, to show what “making money” means, I’ve broken my three scenarios into unadjusted, discounted for cost of capital and discounted for inflation. Again, these totals include my estimates for the last six years, the next ten years, and a terminal value for all future earnings:

Table 1 Totals(All numbers in millions, by the way.)

Here is how those values relate as a percentage of the initial price ($4.05 billion). (So subtract 100% to get the return.)

Table 2 PercentagesIf you said, pick one as “the truth”, I’d pick my median scenario—that’s what median is for, right?—and I’d chose the cost of capital line. That really is the best way to look at investing in entertainment properties, and Star Wars is as pure entertainment as you get. (It’s also what the finance text book would tell me to do.) So it is smack dab in the middle of the table.

Using that number, the only conclusion is that Disney crushed it. Disney got a 107% return over the lifetime of the deal. (A 5x deal in unadjusted terms.)

Even looking at the high and low cases, this makes sense. Even the most pessimistic scenario shows a 38% return. (Which is a 3x return in real dollars. Again, huge for a low case.). Bob Iger and Kevin Mayer made a huge bet and it still had a nice return. In the high case, Disney will make an unadjusted 9x on the asking price. That’s a great deal.

Why do you focus on the discounted numbers compared to the totals?

I ignore “unadjusted” numbers—unadjusted is my best term for it—because I can’t help myself. One of my biggest missions with this series is to remind all my readers of this key finance point. A point—leveraging the time value of money—that the New York Times made when writing about President Trump’s taxes (and which he incorrectly criticized). So it needs to be repeated: A dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow. Financial models need to reflect this reality.

To illustrate it, here’s an example. Disney could have take $4 billion dollars (and yes, they paid half in cash, half in stock) and put it in the S&P 500. If they had done that, they’d have earned a 10.5% inflation-adjusted CAGR from 2013-2018. So if Disney had done nothing, they’d earned 10.5% on their money. This is why the “cost of capital” exists. It accounts for the return you should expect for the risks of a given industry. If you make an investment, it isn’t just good enough to make some money, you need to beat the industry costs of investing in said industry.

Well, why did you also include inflation?

It’s easier for many folks to understand. The cost of capital is what we should judge the deal on, but “cost of capital” is a finance term that most of us don’t deal with on a daily basis. Inflation is easier to understand. It is the everyday reality that the things around us get more expensive over time. Inflation is the cost if you don’t do anything with your cash. It’s just another way to look at it. (And while it fluctuates, it’s hovered around 2% for so long that I’m using that as a placeholder.)

How does the cash flow look by time period?

Glad you asked, because I want to answer this question to keep this Q&A flowing. Essentially, this question asks how earnings flow in by our three major periods: what has happened (2013-2018), the near future (2019-2028) and the far future (the terminal value). Here are 3 tables showing this by model:

Table 3 Totals by Period

To make it easier to read, here’s that breakdown in percentage terms of the total for each line.

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Disney-Lucasfilm Deal Part X: You’ve Been Terminated: Terminal Values Explained and The Last Piece of the Model

Disney-Lucasfilm Deal Part X: You’ve Been Terminated: “Terminal Values Explained” and The Last Piece of the Model

(This is Part X of a multi-part series answering the question: “How Much Money Did Disney Make on the Lucasfilm deal?” Previous sections are here:

Part I: Introduction & “The Time Value of Money Explained”
Appendix: Feature Film Finances Explained!
Part II: Star Wars Movie Revenue So Far
Part III: The Economics of Blockbusters
Part IV: Movie Revenue – Modeling the Scenarios
Part V: The Analysis! Implications, Takeaways and Cautions about Projected Revenue
Part VI: The Television!
Part VII: Licensing (Merchandise, Like Toys, Books, Comics, Video Games and Stuff)
Part VIII: The Theme Parks Make The Rest of the Money
Part IX: Bibbidy-Bobbidy Boo: Put It Together and What Do You Got?

Yesterday’s article was pretty audacious, trying to estimate 6 years of past revenue and 10 years of future revenue. But the eagle-eyed among you may have noticed I left out a crucial detail:

What about the future? 2029 and beyond? Surely Lucasfilm is worth something then too?

Yes, it is. But predicting the far future is the toughest part. Which ties into one of my biggest pet peeves in valuation. I loathe business models that project near term middling performance (or even losses), but a far future of wild success. 

Usually, this wild success is summarized in an outsized “terminal value”, one of the most crucial concepts in equity valuation. It can be hyper-dependent on the growth rate. If the growth rate raises by a point, then the model’s value can shoot through the roof. (And yes, many tech valuations follow this model.)

Yet, terminal values are the best tool we have to solve this problem. If we use them properly. Today I’m adding that last piece to the model, but explaining how I got there and what it is.

Terminal Values…Explained

What is the terminal value? Well, the last number on the spreadsheet that captures all “future” earnings. Look at my model (this is the median scenario), with the new lines added:

Table 1 - Empty ProForma wTerminal Values

In a word, the “terminal value” tries to capture the value of all future earnings after your model stops. Say you feel confident you can predict revenue out five years. Okay good enough. (I mean no one can really predict revenue, costs and hence earnings, though we still try.) But what about 10 years? 15 years? There are too many variables.

You can see the need for this in the Lucasfilm acquisition. Can I really predict what will happen with release dates of films, even two years out? I already had to remove Indiana Jones 5 from my models. Take another line of business, licensing. If you used the toy sales of 2015 to forecast the future, well you’d be much, much too high. (2015 was probably the peak of Star Wars toy sales.) Back when this deal was signed, Disney didn’t know if they were going to launch a streaming service (I assume) but they still could have sold Star Wars TV series. Possibly for even more money. Not selling to others changes the model.

Here is where the science of modeling has come back to the art. (Which isn’t a bad thing, despite current connotation. Good art is really, really hard to make. Great art even harder.) The traditional way to model a terminal value is to use the future cash flows of the last year of the model, and assume those hold steady into the future. In other words, you make a “perpetuity”, a cash flow stream that continues forever. Alternatively, if your company has a large variance in cash flows year to year, you can use a three or five year average to get the base number. To be even more conservative, you can assume instead of a perpetuity, it is an annuity, where the future revenues only last for a given period of time, say 10 or 20 years. (If you need a refresher on “time value of money”, go here.)

The Specific Terminal Value Calculations

How long will Star Wars be valuable? Davy Crockett was the Star Wars of the 1950s, and it isn’t worth $4 billion dollars. Mickey Mouse has been Mickey Mouse since the 1920s, and he’s worth well more than $4 billion dollars. Which way will Star Wars go? I’m going to assume for a long time. Essentially for decades, but with one scenario where it shrinks over time. Which I’ll control for by tweaking the discount rate. (Either having it grow or shrink.)

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Disney-Lucasfilm Deal Part IX: Bibbidy-Bobbidy-Boo: Put It Together and What Do You Got?

(This is Part IX of a multi-part series answering the question: “How Much Money Did Disney Make on the Lucasfilm deal?” Previous sections are here:

Part I: Introduction & “The Time Value of Money Explained”
Appendix: Feature Film Finances Explained!
Part II: Star Wars Movie Revenue So Far
Part III: The Economics of Blockbusters
Part IV: Movie Revenue – Modeling the Scenarios
Part V: The Analysis! Implications, Takeaways and Cautions about Projected Revenue
Part VI: The Television!
Part VII: Licensing (Merchandise, Like Toys, Books, Comics, Video Games and Stuff)
Part VIII: The Theme Parks Make The Rest of the Money)

Many of you are interested in knowing how much money Disney made when it bought Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion dollars. How do I know? Well, one of the Google search terms that directs to my site is, “disney profit lucasfilm”. (And really I should be higher in that search ranking!)

This interest comes from that fact that very few people know the answer. Disney CEO Bob Iger does. Kevin Mayer (Iger’s chief dealmaker) does. Christine M. McCarthy (Iger’s CFO) does. And likely many other Disney employees. 

As for the public, though, we haven’t the foggiest. 

Few other news websites have tried to answer this question. It’s too speculative. Instead, they usually rely on some version of, “Disney has grossed more at the box office than the acquisition cost of Lucasfilm” type articles. These are so obviously wrong—a studio doesn’t collect all of box office for one; it doesn’t account for other revenue streams for two; it doesn’t discount for the time value of money for three—that many of the Disney & Star Wars super-fans want something more. So I did a bottom’s up analysis. (I’m the strategy guy and a super-fan.)

Yet, I’ve left you all wanting. I never finished the damn thing.

Today, it all comes together. Totaling over 66 pages and 30 thousand words with dozens and dozens of charts, tables and financial statements, this article series is my Ulysses. I’ve calculated all the revenues and costs to finally answer the question that started this:

How much money did Disney earn on the Lucasfilm acquisition?

Today, I’m going to walk through building my final model. I will include the final numbers for my three scenarios (through 2028), but today is really about adding in the final estimates to the model. Like a final Harry Potter film—or uncompleted ASOIAF book—this dramatic conclusion will need multiple parts. I’ll explain the model today, tomorrow I’ll calculate the terminal values and then on Thursday, I’ll draw tons of fun conclusions. That’s right, it’s a Lucasfilm week!

Calculating the Final Piece

At first, I was going to make just one model, call it the “average” and be done with it.

But that didn’t make any sense. I’ve been using scenario modeling through out, building best and worst case options where appropriate. In one case—film—I made 8 different scenarios. Scenarios are great because they account for the inherent uncertainty in predicting the future.

To add everything up, I built three versions, the traditional “best case / worst case / average case”. I’m a big fan of using three versions of a model, if they are all realistic. (If you want to goose your numbers with three scenarios, make the worst case very nearly break even.) I treat the high and low case as the equivalent of our 80% confidence interval. The average then acts as my best guess of what will happen. The final summary model looks like this:

Table 1 Empty Proforma

The shaded green cells are what we need to fill in, based on our past calculations. Sure, it looks like a lot of cells, but it is really just 11 lines. A lot of time, we act like high finance is really hard. It isn’t. All you do is add and subtract. We don’t even have to do the math ourselves since Excel does that for us.

As I was building this, I realized that in some lines of business, I forecast revenues out to 2027 and 2028 in others. Don’t ask me why I didn’t keep things uniform. For consistency, all these models will go to 2028, the next ten year estimate. Building this final summary was a good proof read of the Excel models as well.

The Final Calendar

To help build the models, early on I built a calendar that represented my best guess for the future of Lucasfilm under Disney. Remember, this deal was signed in December 2012, so I started the calculations in 2013. This calendar didn’t make sense for any individual article, so I’m putting it here, so that everyone can understand the scale of what Disney is rolling out here:

Table 2 CALENDAR of Lucasfilm

The Three Scenarios

Let’s walk through what I put in each model.

The “Average”: Status Quo Continues

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The Economics Behind Not Releasing Star Wars Films Exclusively on Disney Plus – Part II

(If you missed yesterday’s post, click here.)

Let’s continue with where we left off yesterday. The risk for eliminating theaters and associated early windows (home entertainment and pay-per-view) is in the hundreds of millions of dollar range. So can Disney make that up by releasing new Star Wars films directly and exclusively on Disney Plus?

Part II: Calculate the value of “exclusivity” and “day and date”

Running your own streaming service could be worth all the revenue per film you exchange in box office, pay-per-view, EST and DVD sales. Maybe. The bulls like me would say, “So Disney should exchange making money in theatrical sales for losing billions like Netflix or Hulu?” Hmm. The bears would say, “Look at Netflix’s market capitalization.”

But we’re not looking at the whole platform. We’re looking at individual films. The problem is most of the ways people calculate the value for an individual title on a streaming platform are more wrong than they are right. Or let’s say “suboptimal”. Let’s review how NOT to calculate this number. (With the caution that I can/will write a bunch of articles on this)

Suboptimal Method 1: “Multiply number of people by price per month”

Let’s say 50 million people watch a Star Wars film when it releases on Netflix. (Yes, I think that’s a pretty good estimate. Call it “one Bird Box”.) So the math is:

suboptimal 1

Bingo! $550 million! We should skip the theatrical window.

Hold on. I see some problems with the math. Actually, that method is simultaneously both too high and too low.

(And I bring this up because I hear this discussion of streaming economics all the time on podcasts. I don’t know why podcasts in particular do this math, but it happens.)

First, on the, “this math is too high side”, how do we account for a customer who subscribed to the Disney platform, binges 12 “tent pole” movies, then unsubscribes? Do we have to divide by the number of films? Or what about the new Star Wars series, if a customer watched both? This is why you factor in the total value of the catalogue. So it’s too high.

On the converse side, I could be shortchanging the film. What if it acquired customers? Attracting new customers has to be more valuable, right? They aren’t just worth one month, they’re worth their “lifetime value”. A good model should account for that. And that happens to be…

Suboptimal Method 2: “Multiply number of people by CLV” (even higher)

To start this analysis, we need to estimate a “customer lifetime value”. Note, when Disney launches their service, they won’t have a clue what this is. They’ll have estimates—which aren’t much better than guesses—but they won’t know. If you have no subscribers, you lack the best data to judge retention rate. Sure, you can use Hulu’s data, but there are a host of variables you would need to account for. (Say how their price fluctuates wildly to bring in customers.)

So back of the envelope, let’s assume a new customer stays for on average two years. They pay $11 per month, and you paid $30 to acquire them through partnership bounties and direct marketing. Here’s the math:

sub optimal 2

So if Disney releases a film, and 50 million people watch, that’s worth nearly $12 billion dollars! Release 12 movies like that and then it can make 144 billion dollars!

Do you see the flaw in this logic? 

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The Economics Behind Not Releasing Star Wars Films Exclusively on Disney Plus: Part I

Last week, Bob Iger said in an interview with Barron’s that Disney had no plans to start releasing new Star Wars films—by which he means the ones that will come after Episode 9, releasing later this year—on Disney Plus, their soon-to-be streaming service.

I agreed with this move. Some didn’t. Here’s a tweet that Rich Greenfield of BTIG and prominent Netflix bull, retweeted:

There were others and I got into a debate with Jason Hirschorn of MediaREDEF fame on Twitter:

Twitter is a great medium for some things (getting me exposure to a lot of people for one thing) but bad at others (like the racism and and sexism). I’d also add its bad at discussing things that revolve around numbers. Hard to pull out a spreadsheet on Twitter, you know?

So my case for keeping Star Wars films in theatrical releases is here instead. As I look at it, theaters represent a huge proportion of potential revenue for feature films. For any company that wants to maximize shareholder value, capturing that revenue by releasing in theaters makes sense. To ask Disney to release its blockbuster tent pole films day & date, exclusively on its streaming service is to ask it to forgo billions in potential revenue. 

That just doesn’t make sense for shareholders of Disney.

I often rely on an aphorism that “strategy is numbers”. (I stole it from a professor in business school.) When you skip putting numbers to a business strategy, well, you’re at risk of cutting corners. In other words, you’re still talking numbers, but you just don’t have to hold yourself accountable to them. By not calculating the numbers, it makes qualitative or narrative points much sexier.

Fear not, today, we’ll put numbers to this debate. The goal won’t be for me to “decide” the debate, as this is the type of strategic decision that is impossible to decide with numbers alone. Instead, the numbers will help define how big a leap our qualitative judgments need to make. In other words, it will define how “strategically valuable” skipping theaters to support streaming needs to be. We’ll go in three parts: the Disney numbers, the streaming numbers and the qualitative arguments.

Part I: Weigh the specific economic risk for Disney

This is fortunately really easy. I spent a large part of 2018 writing a novella on the Disney acquisition of Lucasfilm. As a part of that series, I created individual film accounting models per Star Wars film to “show my work”, partly to help the audience learn about feature film accounting and partly to run the numbers myself. 

First, here’s my assumptions on the current distribution for revenue for the lifetime of a feature film (emphasis on lifetime):

film revenue model

As you can see, I currently project that 30% of a feature films value come from theatrical rentals, which is how much a film actually collect on box office results. (Roughly half of the box office, but less overseas, particularly in China. Read the whole series for more.) Taking that  with some estimates on production budgets and marketing budgets, here are my estimates for various types of Star Wars films:

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Disney-Lucasfilm Deal Part VIII: The Theme Parks Make The Rest of the Money

(This is Part VII of a multi-part series answering the question: “How Much Money Did Disney Make on the Lucasfilm deal?” Previous sections are here:

Part I: Introduction & “The Time Value of Money Explained”
Appendix: Feature Film Finances Explained!
Part II: Star Wars Movie Revenue So Far
Part III: The Economics of Blockbusters
Part IV: Movie Revenue – Modeling the Scenarios
Part V: The Analysis! Implications, Takeaways and Cautions about Projected Revenue
Part VI: Disney-Lucasfilm Deal – Television
Part VII: Licensing (Merchandise, Like Books and Comics and Video Games and Stuff))

If you’ve been reading along after 47 pages and six months of writing, you know that Disney more than made its money back on its purchase of Lucasfilm through releasing wildly successful Star Wars sequels, and then making another $1.7 billion in licensing revenue. So they made their money back.

But to truly get a great return on investment—as I wrote in the introduction in my “gut” section and again when referring the licensing & merchandise—theme parks are the whipped cream and cherry on top. In 2019, if it stays on track, in Disneyland and in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Disney will open Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, which have been under construction since 2016.

And they could be huge money makers.

Theme parks allow The Walt Disney Company to make more off its IP than any other studio. (That’s its competitive advantage.) So let’s figure out how to quantify that benefit. Then, we’ll figure out the costs.

The Challenge: Disentangling the Marginal Benefit of new Theme Parks

With movies, calculating the revenue is messy, but we have lots of data. With toys, forecasting the revenue is easy, but we have way less data. What about for theme parks? In this case, the toughest part of the process is assigning the value.

Think of it like this. We know that putting in a Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland will drive attendance and revenue. The problem with theme parks is untangling how much revenue they will drive.

In other words, the “marginal benefits”.

Some day I’m going to write “Marginal Benefits Explained!” because it’s a core economic principle—the core principle?—and I’ve seen 7-figure-earning business execs screw it up. Marginal benefits are the additional revenue a business generates by changing an input. So if you’re making a million dollars a year and raise prices, and it goes up to $1.2 million, your “marginal benefit” for the price raise is $200K, the additional revenue you generated.

(You want to know my biggest frustration/pleasure with this website? Every time I write a new article, I think of two more posts to write inspired by it. The “hydra problem” of the Entertainment Strategy Guy.)

This idea is what stymies the analysis with theme parks. Let’s visualize it with an example.

Next year, I’ll walk into Disneyland in the off-season (probably September-ish). I’ll be wearing a Star Wars shirt. My brother will probably rock a Marvel shirt. That said, I’ll also have a three year old wearing, if current trends hold, either an Elsa (Frozen) or Belle (Beauty and the Beast) dress.

So how much of that trip do you allocate to the opening of Galaxy’s Edge? (Punctuation side note: do you italicize theme park lands? I did, but should I?) My family already averages one trip to Disneyland every year, and my daughter knows that Mickey lives at Disneyland. So she’d go anyways. But what about me? I’ll definitely go to see the new park at some point. We could make an analogy of a theme park to a content library on a streaming platform. People pay for the whole thing, not the parts. With content libraries—which is essentially what a theme park is—untangling and clarifying the value offered by each piece can be tough.

The Economics for Theme Parks

When in doubt, I like to boil things down to a simple formula. So let’s do the rough “business model” for a theme park. I came up with this:

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