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Disney's Hit-Making Studio May Not Be Enough This Quarter to Offset ESPN's Wobbly Performance

It's become as reliable as a LeBron James layup. Every quarter Disney's (DIS) ESPN cable sports behemoth loses subscribers, dragging down operating earnings at the company's cable unit that nearly halve the media giant's operating income. Most quarters Disney's hypercharged movie studio rides to the rescue, with an outsized box office performance by a superhero film from Marvel or a Pixar animated flick.

It may not be as simple, though, when the company reports its fiscal fourth-quarter earnings on Thursday after the market close. The movie studio didn't release a supersized hit during the quarter, although summer blockbuster Finding Dory continued to collect hefty ticket sales through the fall. And Disney's eagerly awaited Steven Spielberg film, The BFG, underwhelmed critics and performed below expectations.

Overall, Disney's films collected $341 million at the box office during the quarter, 10% below a year ago, figures Michael Nathanson, a partner and analyst with MoffettNathanson, who cut his projections for the studio, projecting a 3% decline in earnings instead of a 2% increase.

In October Nathanson reduced his quarterly earnings estimate for the company by 6 cents to $1.18 a share. That's still above the $1.16 a share consensus from analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters (TRI) .

The analysts also estimated the company would report revenue of $13.5 billion for the quarter. For its full year, they...