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Disney beats estimates, sees stronger quarters ahead

A portion of the signage at the main gate of The Walt Disney Co. is pictured in Burbank, California May 7, 2012. REUTERS/Fred Prouser
A portion of the signage at the main gate of The Walt Disney Co. is pictured in Burbank, California May 7, 2012. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

By Ronald Grover and Sue Zeidler

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Walt Disney Co beat estimates in quarterly adjusted earnings on Tuesday and said it expects the next few quarters to be better on a stronger lineup of films and growing attendance at its theme parks.

The results, which come despite the rising costs of acquiring programming for its ESPN sports juggernaut and included its interactive unit swinging back to profit, helped lift shares in the media giant 1.7 percent in after-hours trading.

Net income for its fiscal first quarter fell 6 percent to $1.38 billion. But on an adjusted basis, it posted earnings of 79 cents a share, ahead of the 76 cents forecast by analysts, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

"We're very pleased with our first-quarter results, which set the stage for continued growth in 2013, following a year of record revenue, net income and earnings per share in 2012," Disney Chief Financial Officer Jay Rasulo said during a call with analysts.

Disney, which bought the iconic "Star Wars" series with its$4.06 billion acquisition of director George Lucas' Lucasfilm of in October, also plans to produce movies based on Lucas properties other than "Star Wars", said Chairman and CEO Bob Iger.

"We have a few scripts in mind," Iger said.

Disney intends to release a new "Star Wars" film in 2015, and plans a new installment every two or three years, and has signed "Star Trek" director J.J. Abrams to direct the first one.

Iger also said that the company intends to leverage the "Star Wars" brand across other areas of Disney's business.

Operating profit at Disney's Media Network's division, the largest of its five units, increased by 2 percent although earnings at its cable operations were lower due to higher costs for ESPN to carry college football and NFL.

Rasulo also said Disney was "exploring an exit" from its ESPN operation in the U.K., adding that the sports channel "had experienced losses due to the ramp-up and newness of that business to us."

Disney's theme park unit benefited from higher attendance at its domestic theme parks, driven by the new Cars Land attraction it opened at California Adventure in Anaheim, Calif. in June, although higher labor costs at its Disneyland Paris parks weighed.

Iger said price hikes at Disney's parks are possible as it continues to roll out new attractions.

"We've got some price leverage," he said. "If you build the right things not only will people come but you get some leverage out of it as well."

Earnings fell 5 percent at Disney's studios, which it attributed to a stronger slate a year earlier powered by Cars 2 -- a film that had worldwide ticket sales of $559.8 million, according to the movie site Box Office Mojo.

Its interactive division swung to a profit of $9 million from a loss of $28 million in the prior quarter, although Iger and Rasulo said it would likely revert to a loss in the coming quarter because it has fewer new products to sell.

"There were no real surprises, although interactive was probably what surprised us the most on the upside," said David Bank, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets.

ABC has sold out its advertising for the upcoming Academy Awards on February 24, the best selling pace in more than a decade. Rasulo said the Oscars had been virtually sold out by Christmas.

Ad Age reported that Disney has been commanding between $1.65 million and $1.85 million for a 30-second spot in this year's Oscar broadcast, citing media buyers and others familiar with the tone of the negotiations.

That's up from the $1.6 million to $1.7 million ABC secured for the 2012 Oscars telecast, Ad Age said.

David Miller, analyst with B. Riley Caris, said he was surprised not to see Disney report any charges related to its Lucasfilm acquisition and expects the company may yet announce some restructuring.

"We think they're going to lay some people off," said Miller. "There's going to be a lot of restructuring, there's going to be a lot of charges. But fiscal 2014 looks pretty good," he said.

Before the announcement, Disney closed up 39 cents at $54.29 on the New York Stock Exchange.

(Editing by Leslie Gevirtz, Bernard Orr and Edwina Gibbs)

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