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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, March 8, 2010

Superheroes help reinvent Disney

By Seth Lubove and Andy Fixmer
Bloomberg News Service

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Robert Iger, head of Walt Disney Co., is on a spending spree, buying up companies and products such as Marvel comics characters and brain-eating zombie video games.

JONATHAN ALCORN | Bloomberg News Service

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When Walt Disney Co. asked publisher Dan Vado to make a series of comic books based on its Haunted Mansion theme-park ride, he worried that the empire built on the likes of Snow White and Tinker Bell would reject his brand of creepy humor. Vado gave Disney skeletons dangling from nooses, scattered corpses and a ghostly poodle that says "crap." To his surprise, Disney signed off on his vision.

"Everything we did was really strange," says Vado, founder of San Jose, California-based SLG Publishing (SLG, as in Slave Labor Graphics). "The interesting thing about Disney is, for a company perceived as being stodgy, they do a good job of reinventing themselves."

Disney chief executive Robert Iger, 59, is on a spending spree at the world's biggest media company, to transform his film studio, amusement parks and stores. In fiscal 2009, net income at Disney fell 25 percent to $3.3 billion the worst year in Iger's five-year reign and was almost flat in the first quarter of 2010 compared with a year earlier.

The global recession has hammered the company's 11 theme parks, which are offering promotions and discounts. The Burbank, Calif.-based company's studio is also struggling: In 2009, it churned out such box office flops as "G-Force," which featured wisecracking guinea pigs.

Iger is pouring billions into attracting a new generation of kids boys especially raised on violent video games and reality shows.

In December, Disney completed its $4.3 billion purchase of Marvel Entertainment Inc., home of Iron Man, Spider-Man and the X-Men, paying a 40 percent premium over the stock price.

The company is now building two additional cruise ships, one of which includes an AquaDuck water coaster that plunges four decks. Park guests will see more-complex, life-size electronic robots made to look like U.S. presidents and Disney characters. And with input from Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs, Disney's largest shareholder, Iger is giving his 350 retail stores a tech makeover and opening a new one in New York's Times Square in the fall.

The total price tag for all the upgrades through 2014: more than $12.3 billion, according to New York-based Soleil Securities Corp. analyst Alan Gould, a 59 percent increase over the prior five years.

Investors give mixed reviews of Iger's moves to refresh the entertainment giant, founded as a cartoon studio by Walt Disney and his brother Roy in 1923.

After Iger took over in October 2005, the stock rose 53 percent to a seven-year peak of $36.30 in May 2007 before crashing in 2009 during the credit crisis to a low of $15.59. From that bottom last March, the shares doubled to $31.24 as of Feb. 26, still lagging rival News Corp.'s 179 percent rise.

Iger has proved to be a serial acquirer. Three months after taking the helm as CEO, he agreed to pay $7.4 billion for Pixar, co-founded by Jobs, to improve Disney's flagging animation pipeline. In all, the CEO has snapped up 28 companies in whole or part.

When announcing the deal for Marvel and its cast of superheroes in August, Iger said they will attract more boys to its cable cartoon offerings.

"Content and products for boys have been less consistent for Disney than those for girls," says UBS AG analyst Michael Morris in New York. "When Disney looks for growth opportunities, it sees big potential with boys."

Last year, Disney also bought Wideload Games Inc., maker of the violent video game "Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse," featuring brain-eating zombies. And the company rebranded its Toon Disney cable cartoon channel as Disney XD. The channel's new programming features shows such as "Kick Buttowski" aimed at boys age 6 to 14, the company said.

To fill theaters, Disney can't yet rely on several of Marvel's most popular comic-book characters. They're tied up in licensing deals: News Corp. has the rights to the X-Men, Sony Corp. controls Spider-Man and Universal Studios Inc. claims several Marvel characters for exclusive use in its Orlando theme parks.

Disney has to mine the likes of Captain America, Thor and lesser-known figures like Ant-Man until the bigger superhero licenses expire, beginning in 2013.

The licensing deals soured some analysts on the Marvel purchase.

"Over the long run, we suspect this will be viewed as Mr. Iger's first major mistake as CEO," Citigroup Inc. analyst Jason Bazinet wrote in September.