Maybe the brokerage house analysts don't get it yet (or if they do, they aren't saying so), but at least somebody sees more than just outside forces being at work in Disney's troubles. Motley Fool With tenuous relationships between Disney and its corporate sponsors and filmmaking partners, it's not just disgruntled investors walking out on the company. If you run an entertainment empire, the first rule is to keep the audience happy. Disney is failing on that front. The encore performance doesn't look any more promising. By Rick Aristotle Munarriz (TMF Edible) March 7, 2003 The Cheese stands alone. While Disney (NYSE: DIS) has been scaring away Lehman Brothers (NYSE: LEH), Merrill Lynch (NYSE: MER), and SoundView Financial analysts this month on fiscal 2003 profit concerns, those aren't the only big names heading for the exit turnstiles. Big business heavies like FedEx (NYSE: FDX) and General Electric (NYSE: GE) are bowing out of corporate sponsorships at the company's theme parks, while Miramax and Pixar (Nasdaq: PIXR) want out of the studio if Disney doesn't give them a bigger piece of the action. Defections and dissensions may be customary in the workspace, but the implications are significant when it means even more nibbling at a picked-over bottom line. While Wall Street is worried about the impact of war on Disney's tourist-munching model, I'm equally concerned about how the company's defenses will hold up in light of the way its in-house movies are bombing at the box office. Park plays Reality TV show I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here was a humbling fiasco for Disney, as ABC placed fourth in the Nielsen ratings throughout the show's two-week run during the critical February sweeps period. But has anyone noticed that corporate celebrities are playing the home version? At the theme parks, Disney relies on companies to help foot the bill for its signature rides and attractions. Lending millions in the development and maintenance of these marquee draws, which can occasionally top the $100 million mark (such as with Epcot's Test Track and Mission: Space), a corporate sponsor is more than just a pretty name on a ride. In the past, these contracts (which typically run for three years) were quickly renewed. It's a symbiotic relationship in which the sponsor ties its brand to a high-traffic, high-quality situation, and continuity is a given. That kind of marketing action is worth the fancy coin. But what happens when the quality distinction begins to fade, and no one's around to polish it? What happens when attendance dips? Amusement Business reports that attendance at Disney's four Florida theme parks fell by an average of 6% last year. That was the third consecutive year of attendance declines. You can't blame Disney for every corporate sponsor departure. These are lean economic times in which fiscal manicurists are filing down marketing budgets. Disney should be awfully concerned that the only significant attraction being added to its Florida theme parks this year, Mission: Space, is sponsored by Hewlett Packard's (NYSE: HPQ) Compaq -- a company that no longer exists as an independent entity. It signed a broad, 10-year alliance with the Mouse three years ago, before the nuptials. But if Disney blames its sluggish theme park attendance on general travel trends, someone should ask the company why other parks, such as Holiday World, Universal's Islands of Adventure, and Cedar Fair's (NYSE: FUN) Cedar Point, will have no problem drawing larger crowds this summer, just as they did in 2002? Any company caught counting dollars before smiles has no right to question why the public won't pay e-ticket prices for an A-ticket experience. Operating profits within the company's parks and resorts division fell by 26% last year. Rather than fight back with new rides and promotions, the company is standing akimbo. While Cedar Point is erecting the world's largest roller coaster, and Disney's neighbors at Universal Studios Florida will open two new attractions in the coming months, most of Disney's theme parks won't be upgraded with major attractions this year. Reel problems When you kick back to watch the Oscars in two weeks, take a good look at the Miramax nominees and try to picture where Disney's studio efforts would be without the Weinsteins. Of Disney's 44 nominations, all but four are the handiwork of Harvey Weinstein at Miramax. Yes, CEO Michael Eisner struck gold when he acquired Miramax 10 years ago for a paltry $80 million -- $50 million less than what the subsidiary produced in operating profits last year alone. But now Bob and Harvey Weinstein want more out of their relationship with Disney. More money. More control. Less Disney. The fire escape is much closer for Pixar. Two years and three theatrical releases from now, the company is free to bolt. Disney has been taking a generous 50% cut of the profits, and rival studios are lining up just for the sake of collecting distribution fees without digging deep into the royalties. Pixar has the money to fund its own releases. Why does Disney need Pixar? The computer animation studio has released four movies since 1995, which have grossed a collective $857 million at the domestic box office. That's an average of $214 million per picture. Disney has released dozens of animated features since Pixar's Toy Story. How many have topped Pixar's average? None. Disney can make overtures to other computer-fueled animation houses or Weinstein wannabes. But the end result is that, as bad as things appear for Disney right now, they will only get worse when these cash cows stop producing as much milk for the company's coffers. The Willard defense In a case of classic theatrical timing, a remake of Willard is now just days away from its big screen debut. Remember this one? About a luckless misfit who eventually trains his mice to do his dirty work? Isn't that Michael Eisner right now? Given that the board awarded Eisner and President Robert Iger $5 million and $3 million, respectively, in stock bonuses for their performance in fiscal 2002, you wouldn't guess the executive ranks are in trouble. Yet revenues dipped; operating profits fell by a third; and cash flow from operations tanked by $762 million from the year before. This performance was rewarded? The stock has surrendered two-thirds of its value over the past two years. However, it has simply aped the 64% decline in operating cash flow, which has gone from $6.4 billion in fiscal 2000 to $2.3 billion last year. Debt is up. Earnings are down. A bonus? Really? The company has chosen to define success by the same metric that it defines "celebrity" in casting ABC's Celebrity Mole and I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. Later this month, the company will hold its annual shareholder meeting in Denver. Why the Mile-High City? Probably so no one will notice that the top ranks have their heads in the clouds. Between a chummy board of directors that seems complacent to be tethered to failure, and park-planning and content-programming decisions that border on Munchausen, where's the glimmer of hope? Disney isn't making its best movies. It isn't making its best animated features. It doesn't even own or operate its most popular theme park -- Tokyo Disneyland. It's ironic that cries for a more independent board have fallen on deaf ears, while the company's own lack of in-house production has it financially dependent on the shoulders of just about everybody else. But those shoulders are getting tired. Too tired. It won't be long before we hear the song... Hi-ho the dairy-o, The Cheese stands alone. Rick Aristotle Munarriz lives in Florida and can be found at Disney World far more often than he would care to admit. He owns a piece of Disney, more than just the brick that bears his surname in front of the last turnstile at Magic Kingdom's monorail side entrance. He also has a few shares of Pixar in his youngest son's IRA. Rick's other stock holdings can be viewed online, as can the Fool's disclosure policy.