LOS ANGELES — Disney has taken an especially hard hit from the pandemic, with its theme parks shuttered, movies postponed and ESPN cable channel without live sports to televise.
But the company on Wednesday offered an upbeat update on its newest business — one that may as well have been built for home quarantining: Disney Plus, its Netflix-style streaming service, has 50 million paid subscribers worldwide, an astounding number for a product that is only 5 months old.
Before its November introduction, analysts expected Disney Plus to take until 2022 to reach 50 million subscribers.
To compare, Hulu, now owned by Disney, has only about 30 million subscribers after 13 years in operation; Hulu has not yet been introduced overseas. The leading streaming service, Netflix, introduced in 2007, has about 167 million subscribers worldwide.
“This bodes well for our continued expansion,” Kevin Mayer, Disney’s streaming chairman, said in a statement.
Last month, Disney introduced the service in eight European countries and India, operating under a rollout schedule set last year. Mayer said Disney Plus would arrive in Japan and Latin America by the end of the year.
Analysts say the coronavirus pandemic has most likely helped Disney Plus maintain existing subscribers and attract new ones, as parents look for ways to entertain homebound children. Disney Plus, which offers movies and shows from the Disney, Marvel, Pixar, “Star Wars,” National Geographic and “Simpsons” universes, has also benefited from a low monthly cost — $7 for those paying full price — and zealous marketing. An exclusive Disney Plus offering, “The Mandalorian,” a live-action “Star Wars” series, has been a runaway hit.
Disney shares increased about 7% in after-hours trading Wednesday, buoyed by the subscriber count.
The pandemic has battered Disney, which has lost roughly $70 billion in market capitalization since the beginning of February. With its movie, theme park, television production and merchandise businesses at a near standstill, Disney has slashed executive salaries by up to 30%; starting on April 19, the company will begin furloughing nonessential employees.
It is unclear how badly the Disney Plus pipeline of original content has been affected. Subscribers have been promised a second season of “The Mandalorian” this year, along with multiple shows featuring Marvel superheroes. Analysts estimate that Disney Plus could lose as much as $1.8 billion annually, with programming a major expense.
In an interview with Barron’s on Tuesday, Robert A. Iger, Disney’s executive chairman, floated the possibility of checking theme park guests for fevers to get that business back on its feet as soon as possible. (Summer at the earliest.)
“People will have to feel comfortable that they’re safe,” Iger said. Barring a vaccine, “it could come from more scrutiny, more restrictions,” he added. “Just as we now do bag checks for everybody that goes into our parks, it could be that at some point we add a component of that that takes people’s temperatures.”
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