Netflix’s 40% stock run has it challenging Disney’s valuation

The Walt Disney Company may own the most valuable film properties on the planet. But investors seem to think Netflix could still be in position to challenge the House of the Mouse and become this century’s leading entertainment media company.

Whoever comes out on top, it seems increasingly clear that the battle is going to come down to these two global giants.

Since the start of this year, Netflix’s stock has climbed from $199.50 per share to $280.31 on Thursday, just slightly down from its $286.49 per share peak on January 29. The latest bull run started with word that the Netflix movie Bright had attracted a large number of viewers over the holidays. This was further boosted when the company reported that it had added more subscribers than expected in the last quarter.

In terms of streaming, Netflix is available in almost every country, a reach that’s unmatched by the likes of HBO, or even Amazon Prime Video. And Netflix has used that global footprint to continue leveraging its original content.

The biggest risk facing Netflix, of course, is how much it’s spending on content. In the most recent earnings call last month, executives said the company will spend between $7.5 billion and $8 billion on content in 2018. And that number will likely go higher each successive year. The company has also been signing exclusive deals with producers to create shows for its service.

For the moment, Netflix will need to continue borrowing to fund that content budget. In 2018, the company expects to spend between $3 billion and $4 billion more on content than it takes in in cash. Netflix is betting it can manage the payments on that debt until it becomes cash-flow positive again.

A risk, for sure. But investors and analysts seem increasingly confident Netflix executives’ ability  to manage this, as its valuation has now climbed to $121.6 billion versus $158 billion for Disney as for Thursday’s close of market. Netflix’s stock was down slightly in early Friday trading.

Of course, Disney has seen the Netflix threat, and has made a couple of big moves to thwart it. The first was to announce it would pull its content from Netflix in 2019 in order to launch its own subscription service. That means no more Disney, Marvel and Pixar films on Netflix.

Then, late last year, Disney announced it had agreed to buy 21st Century Fox’s film and television assets for $52.4 billion. That mega-deal is still awaiting regulatory approval, but when it closes, it will place Disney’s valuation another tier beyond Netflix’s reach for the time being.

Still, Disney face its own risks. Netflix has built out massive infrastructure to deliver a smooth, reliable, and high-quality streaming experience around the planet, taking into account a wide variety of gadgets, screen sizes, and internet speeds. And it deftly uses its internal artificial intelligence to surface content for viewers. Finally, its design and navigation is fluid and easy to navigate.

Matching that is no easy task. Just ask Amazon, which — despite running its own massive cloud service — offers a video service that often feels clunky, with laggy designs that make it hard to search and little in the way of suggesting interesting titles. Disney’s massive content libraries will contain lots of well-known titles, but asking users to subscribe and pay a monthly fee involves establishing an entirely new relationship.

This will eventually leave consumers facing some tough choices. Users’ brief euphoria about saving money by cutting the cord is giving way to the reality that paying for content across different services is going to add up quickly.

Even with all these amazing titles, Disney is going to have to convince consumers to make room in their budget for one more monthly fee. Likewise, Netflix is going to have to continue investing in content to shore up its hold on subscribers.

In any case, the fight is on. And high-stakes games around content and acquisitions are going to be the norm for the next several years.