Dents in Disney's armor

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Affable Mickey Mouse has been recently running scared, darting around snapping business rat traps.

Now entertainment industry giant Walt Disney Co. is training the company icon to meet a number of challenges threatening the bottom line at the Magic Kingdom.

Last year, Disney looked to bulk up its flabby areas. Chiefly, this started with the troubled Walt Disney Consumer Products Worldwide division.

Because of the glut of its entertainment licensed products, as well as in the industry as a whole,revenue slipped 5% in its fiscal year ending Sept. 30, to $3 billion; income fell 24% to $607 million.

The problem appeared to be a seemingly endless barrage of tired-looking Mickey products targeting a kids' audience distracted by other enticements.

Disney has "to do a better job with all their intellectual properties, and they have to get some new stuff," says Tom Wolzien, media stock analyst, for investment banker Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. "But I don't think you are going to be satisfied that they got it fixed until they stop screwing up. [For instance,] they let Warner Bros. get the rights to `Harry Potter,' " the hot selling trilogy of books that are being developed into merchandising and film blockbusters.

Looking to get Disney back on track is Andrew Mooney, the new president of Worldwide Consumer Products. Mr. Mooney, hired last December, ran global marketing at Nike, in part, responsible for the marketing success of the company in the '90s. One of his main efforts at Disney has been to re-market Mickey himself.

Already a yearlong marketing push is underway in giving Mickey more of a modern-day personality. The effort includes a first-ever TV ad campaign for Mickey Mouse, called "Why Do We Love the Mouse?

The first commercial aired during this year's Super Bowl, starring basketball star Shaquille O'Neal and TV host Regis Philbin. In all, about 20 spots will run throughout the year during programs such as "Barbara Walters Academy Awards Special," "The MTV Music Awards," the National Basketball Association playoffs, as well as other national prime-time, daytime and early morning programming.

More upheaval is underway. Disney Consumer Products is also looking to trim away the plethora of worldwide licensees -- some 4,200 -- by a third. It will also redesign a number of Mickey Mouse clothing lines and products, as well as spruce up its Disney Stores.

But the problems extend further.

Under Disney's Film Entertainment division sits its slumping home video division. This area had been a cash cow for the company for years, but Disney got too greedy in the early '90s releasing every animated classic it had. Over the last few years, it hasn't released enough new product to keep growing at that explosive pace.

Here's the evidence: While Disney's Film Entertainment division contributes 28% in terms of revenue to the company, the division only accounts for 1% of the company's overall income. Home video is the chief culprit.

"The real issue is turning around home video," says Mr. Wolzien. "The cupboard has been basically bare. And now they have come up with a new way of releasing movies."

Beginning in January, the company slowly will re-release to video its top 10 films, called the "Disney Platinum Collection." One title will be released each fall on a 10-year cycle, beginning with the reissue of "Snow White" in 2001.

The problems continue; another drain on future earnings performance is Disney's big multimillion-dollar investment in Go.com, its Internet portal. With only a year under its belt as a Disney property, Go.com will take some years before showing some positive financial results, analysts say.

These and other missteps have pulled down Disney stock to just over $23 share last October. The stock now resides in the $36 range.

What has never been in doubt has been the company's bread-and-butter theme parks. Walt Disney Attractions has been the driving force behind virtually all of the company's activities. Its worldwide theme parks have been consistently posting big revenues and sizable earnings, outperforming other areas of the company.

While theme parks contributes 26% of Disney's overall revenues at $6.1 billion in 1999, they represent 38% of its overall operating earnings. Operating income for theme parks climbed 12% to $1.45 billion last year, while the company as a whole sank 14%.

Its theme park division has succeeded by continually reinventing and adding to the Disney experience, by starting up Animal Kingdom last year in Disney World in Orlando, Fla., its fourth Florida theme park, for example.

Attendance is up for its Florida attractions, with Disney World pulling a record 42.6 million visitors.

According to one trade paper, Amusement Business, the company is on pace for another record this year.

The phrase `marketing synergy' may have started around Disney's theme parks. More than other entertainment companies, Disney uses all divisions to fuel connections among its businesses - marketing which is targeted at its theme parks.

"Theme parks are the place where the whole Disney experience comes to life," says Linda Warren, senior VP-marketing for Walt Disney World. Over the last five years, Disney theme parks have successfully marketed its parks by segmenting its advertising into four key areas.

One key area is an overall brand or anthem target: family, empty-nesters and multi-generational families. Disney World's longstanding `anthem' spot: "I'm going to Disney World"/"I'm going to Disneyland" theme continued this year with a spot starring Kurt Warner of the Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams.

Theme park costs have been kept in line as well. Originally, the new California Adventure theme park, due to open next February in Anaheim, Calif., was targeted with a $3 billion price tag. The attraction ended up as a $1.4 billion project, half the original estimate. This makes sense to Art Rockwell, president of Rockwell Capital Management: "You have a huge built-in market in California. But it's limited. Florida is bigger and they get the international tourists."

A major piece of Walt Disney Attractions marketing efforts revolves around its extensive 10-year exclusive marketing partnership with McDonalds Corp. The fast-food giant helped launch Animal Kingdom last year through promotions at its restaurants. In its on-site fast-food franchises at Disney parks, McDonald's pumps out much of the Disney message with videos of Disney movies and other products. Other major Disney theme park sponsors include National Car Rental and American Express.

It's not just theme parks these days. Now Disney has more than a million reasons to be thankful for the performance in its broadcasting division.

Chiefly, ABC has seen a resurgence this year thanks to the booming success of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire." Other fare, such as "The Drew Carey Show" and "The Practice" have seen a pump in ratings.

ABC could move into higher ground, according to analyst, Brad Adgate, senior VP-director of research at media buyer Horizon Media, New York. He says with "Millionaire," as well as its ratings from the broadcast of the Super Bowl and the upcoming "Academy Awards" show, ABC might win the entire TV season, after being an also-ran for more than a decade.

Theatrically, things have never been better for Disney. For the fourth year in a row, Disney boasted the largest U.S. box-office revenues of any studio, with $1.263 billion. Two monster movies, "Toy Story 2" with $206 million in box-office receipts, and the summer surprise hit of the season, "The Sixth Sense" rocketed to the $275.7 level helped the studio numbers.

Two other summer movies "Tarzan" posting $170 million and "Inspector Gadget" at $97 million were also big contributors.

Still, some analysts worry that the ever-rising costs of moviemaking could cut into the company's profitability.

For Disney, the tough part is in outdoing itself. Disney made a great decision some years ago to buy Pixar Animation, the creators of "Toy Story." That production company has enjoyed a perfect record of success and likely will create a number of popular movies for the rest of the decade.

With much of its business restructured, Disney is then left to the task of how to re-invent Mickey, the core image of the company. No matter whether Mickey turns out to be a buff lifeguard or beach weakling, Disney's $800 million in annual media spending for all its divisions constitutes the heaviest of heavyweight marketing muscle.

That usually makes things happen.

Says Mr. Rockwell simply: "They'll keep the logo out there."

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