Chapek says that a metric Disney uses to gauge future consumer interest known as “intent to visit” at Florida’s Walt Disney World is already consistent with fiscal 2019 levels, when the company’s theme-park division took in more than $26 billion. Last year it drummed up just over $16 billion.
Chapek was speaking on a call to discuss the company’s second-quarter earnings. Those earnings could be bleak: though earnings-per-share came in above analyst expectations, Disney’s theme-park revenue sank 44 percent and overall revenue was down 13 percent. Its operating income was roughly flat, up just 2 percent to $2.47 billion, as the company’s revenue from theatrical movies has also remained small.
But Chapek was also optimistic about the near future of that segment, saying Disney will begin putting movies back in theaters exclusively as early as August. That reverses a pandemic-era policy under which the studio initially released films partly or wholly on digital platforms with theaters closed and consumer skepticism persistent.
But there is a downside for Disney to the resumption of travel and public events: Disney Plus, which saw subscription soar during the pandemic, added only 8.7 million new customers in the first three months of the year. Analysts had expected about 15 million.
The service now has 103.6 million subscribers around the world, about half that of Netflix, which has experienced its own 2021 slowdown as quarantine pressures have eased.
Investors did not relish the Disney Plus news, sending the stock price down 4 percent in after-hours trading.
Disney also raised monthly prices from $6.99 to $7.99 recently, but executives say that has not led to “churn” — financial-speak for people unsubscribing. Disney chief financial officer Christine McCarthy told analysts the company is still on track for a projected 230 million to 260 million Disney Plus subscribers by 2024.
A return to outdoor-entertainment normalcy is critical for Disney, which has been hammered by quarantines and consumer caution since the pandemic began to spread in March 2020. In the last three months of the year, its net profits dropped from $2.1 billion to just $29 million.
Theme parks are key to that: In early 2019, parks accounted for more than 40 percent of the company’s total revenue.
The theme-park and theater prospects are expected to be boosted by the CDC’s announcement Thursday that inoculated Americans can remove their masks in many indoor situations. Americans continue to get vaccinated — nearly 150 million have received at least one shot — though experts have raised concerns about a slowed pace of new vaccinations.
Disney executives hope the summer in particular can see a burst of theme-park visitors.
Disneyland has been open for the past two weeks, but only to California residents and at a 25 percent maximum attendance. Those restrictions probably will be removed in mid-June. All parks around the world except its Paris location are now open. The company has yet to give a reopening date for the European park.
Disney World, meanwhile, has been open since last summer with several attractions closed and social-distancing guidelines in place.
On the movie front, some observers had speculated that studios could shift the model more permanently dramatically as consumers over the past 15 months grew accustomed to watching big-name films at home. Disney has been making movies available on Disney Plus under various price plans dating back to the middle of last year.
But while several of the firm’s July 2021 films — including the much-delayed “Black Widow” and the Dwayne Johnson adventure “The Jungle Cruise” — will again arrive on Disney Plus for paid purchase simultaneously with their release in theaters, Chapek suggested Thursday that era would end with the release of “Free Guy” and “Shang-Chi.”
He left room to return to a digital-first model, but only if matters remained bleak.
“We’re continuing to watch the evolution of the recovery of the theatrical marketplace,” he said, “and we’ll use that flexibility to make that right call at the right time.”
Theaters have been eager for new product. But studios have been more cautious, waiting until much of the moviegoing territories around the world are close to full strength.