Disney speeds up streaming push

The House of Mouse shakes up its corporate structure to boost Disney+ following activist investor pressure

Disney has intensified efforts to expand its streaming service following pressure from an activist investor to step up its challenge to Netflix. 

The world's biggest entertainment company plans to overhaul its media and entertainment operations to make Disney+ a focal point of the business. 

The move comes after Daniel Loeb urged Disney to divert $3bn (£2.3bn) of dividend payments towards making original shows for the streaming service. 

The shift inflicts another blow to the cinema industry, which has been left reeling from delays to blockbuster releases and Cineworld's decision to mothball almost 700 cinemas across the UK and America.

Disney, which owns Marvel and Star Wars maker LucasFilm, had already come under fire from cinema operators on Monday after opting to debut the new Pixar animation Soul on Disney+ rather than the big screen. 

The company is not expected to charge a premium for the title, unlike the $30 it asked viewers to pay to see Mulan last month. 

Chief executive Bob Chapek said he was positioning Disney to support its expansion plans and increase shareholder value by “accelerating [its] direct-to-consumer business”.

He added: “Managing content creation distinct from distribution will allow us to be more effective and nimble in making the content consumers want most, delivered in the way they prefer to consume it.”

Streaming services have grown hugely in popularity over the last five years and 15m households in the UK now subscribe to at least one.

Disney will merge its TV networks, film studio and direct-to-consumer units into one division called Media and Distribution. Existing content chiefs will continue to oversee their businesses, but they will now be directly able to choose what movies and TV shows air on its streaming services.

Mr Loeb, who runs New York-based hedge fund Third Point, had sent a letter to Mr Chapek last week claiming Disney could gain more subscribers than Netflix within “a few years” if it invested more in programming.

Disney+ launched last November and now has more than 60m subscribers - beating the bottom of the company's 60m to 90m target it aimed to hit by 2024. Netflix has more than 180m subscribers.

Tom Harrington at Enders Analysis said the re-organisation would be tough on cinemas because it gave Disney greater flexibility when deciding if a film should go to Disney+ or theatres first. 

"Assuming that the cinemas were still operational and people still had the same appetite for going, Disney would still make a whole lot more in the short term by putting these blockbusters on at the cinema," he added. 

"But in a few years when they have maybe hundreds of millions of subscribers, who are paying a whole lot more than £5 a month each, then you are talking about turning a massive profit. To do that, you really need to go in it hard, and this is a statement of intent that they are prepared to look at that."

Investors sent Disney shares up almost 5pc in pre-market trading in  New York.