Disney's blockbuster 2019 will be followed by year of unknowns

Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse greets a visitor at Tokyo Disneyland in Urayasu city, Japan. 

Walt Disney Co. is barreling toward a record-setting year in 2019, with "Avengers: Endgame" already poised to become the biggest blockbuster of all time.

A live-action "Aladdin" debuts later this month, followed by an "X-Men" movie, "Toy Story 4," "The Lion King," "Frozen 2" and "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker." It's a schedule chock-full of well-known franchises and surefire moneymakers.

In comparison, 2020 could be a different story. Disney will actually have more films on its schedule than in a typical year -- thanks to the recent acquisition of 21st Century Fox Inc.'s studios -- but the movies won't be as recognizable. "Avatar 2" would have been one of the year's tentpole pictures, until Disney announced plans this week to delay its release until 2021.

That increases the burden on films such as "Onward," a Pixar cartoon where elves and trolls live in the suburbs, and three Marvel features. But they aren't expected to duplicate the success of "Endgame": That film ended a 22-movie story arc, so the coming movies may need to rebuild the momentum.

"2019 is a banner year, with some major finales," said Erik Davis, managing editor of ticket site Fandango. "I wouldn't say 2020 isn't as exciting as 2019 -- you just don't know what to expect."

In releasing its movie lineup this week, Disney gave a glimpse into how it will integrate the newly acquired Fox films into its schedule. The company gained "Avatar" as part of the $71 billion deal, and now it has to figure out how to weave that franchise into its existing Marvel, Pixar and "Star Wars" plans.

After the "Skywalker" film, the next "Star Wars" won't appear until December 2022. Another will debut in 2024, with a third coming in 2026. Disney had been releasing a "Star Wars" picture roughly every year, but the studio drew flak for overwhelming viewers. Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger said last month that Disney would take a break from the movies after the current saga concludes.

James Cameron, the "Avatar" writer-director who also created "Titanic," has a track record of making big-budget films that pay off at the box office. But "Avatar" is an especially bold wager. He's planning four sequels to the 2009 film, and they'll stretch into the late 2020s.

Delaying "Avatar 2" may allow Disney to ensure that it truly delivers, Davis said.

"The strategic planning of release dates is one of the most crucial decisions in the theatrical business," said Jason Squire, editor of "The Movie Business Book" and a professor at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts. "It's a fascinating chess game."

Adding the Fox slate also will test the strategy that turned Disney into the world's biggest studio: releasing a small number of huge movies with established fan bases. It now has a whopping 19 films on the 2020 schedule, including Fox's action-thriller "Underwater" and "Free Guy," about a banker who discovers he's in a video game. There's also a big-screen version of the "Bob's Burgers" animated sitcom. They won't all be winners.

The schedule does include a Fox-made Marvel movie, "The New Mutants," but it's a horror film featuring Maisie Williams (Arya in "Game of Thrones"). In other words, a very un-Disney take.

The slate is about twice as big as the typical Disney lineup and closer to the number of films that rivals Universal Pictures and Warner Bros. release annually.

"The release schedule that they announced seems to be dealing with the integration of Fox features into the Disney fold," Squire said. "The deal is historic -- one studio being acquired by another -- it hasn't happened in decades."

For Disney investors, the calendar year is less important than the fiscal year, which ends in September. That means the upcoming "Star Wars" film and "Frozen 2" will be released in fiscal 2020, helping spread out the hits.

Even so, the comparisons may be tough going forward, said Rich Greenfield, an analyst at BTIG. The risk for investors is that they value Disney based on peak earnings, he said. Shareholders can be "lulled into complacency thinking Disney profits only go up," he said.

Disney, based in Burbank, California, plans to report its latest quarterly results on Wednesday afternoon.

Meanwhile, Disney has an even bigger challenge ahead: the launch of its new streaming service in November. That's going to overshadow the performance of any individual movie, said Laura Martin, an analyst at Needham & Co.

"This is a big empire now, so no one film affects it as much as before," she said.

If Disney falls short of its goal of getting 20 million to 30 million U.S. subscribers, it's not going to matter how many blockbusters they rack up in any one year.

"They could have two 'Endgames' and investors will be disappointed," she said.

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