NBCUniversal sees growth in theme parks and movie studio

NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke says Universal Pictures studio is 'on a roll'

NBCUniversal revenue last year increased 7.5% to $25.4 billion with improvements at the NBC broadcast network, cable channels and theme parks.

"We still believe we have significant upside," NBCUniversal Chief Executive Steve Burke told Wall Street analysts Tuesday during a conference call to discuss earnings for parent Comcast Corp.

"One of the big drivers is theme parks, and film is a driver as well," Burke said. "The movie business is on a roll."

The picture is indeed improving at Universal Pictures, which recorded its most profitable year in the Los Angeles film studio's history -- despite revenue dropping 8% to $5 billion for the year.

The reason: Universal released a leaner film slate than originally envisioned in 2014. Fewer releases typically translates into higher profits because marketing spending goes down. Universal bumped a couple of major releases into 2015.

Universal is showing renewed vigor this year.

Its film adaptation of the bestselling erotic novel, "Fifty Shades of Grey," has whipped up nearly $130 million in domestic box office sales. 

Including foreign markets, the film has generated more than $410 million in sales since it opened Feb. 13 -- a dominant position for a movie that cost $40 million to make.

Universal is second in overall studio market share so far this year, behind Burbank-based Warner Bros., which has been propelled by "American Sniper."

Universal Pictures also is looking forward to the April release of "Fast & Furious 7," which is expected to be another blockbuster.

During the fourth quarter of 2014, the film revenue dropped 10% to $1.3 billion. The movie "Unbroken," directed by Angelina Jolie, mustered a decent showing -- but the film unit faced tough comparisons for the quarter.

Its year-earlier period included manic holiday sales of the animated movie, "Despicable Me 2."  DVD sales also were down.  The film unit produced operating cash flow of just $77 million in the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, the NBC broadcast division, which includes TV stations, generated 20% higher revenue to $8.5 billion in 2014. The results were boosted by the company's successful telecast of the Sochi Winter Olympics.

During the fourth quarter, when "Sunday Night Football," was tearing up the field,  NBC broadcast unit increased revenue 4.8% to $2.33 billion.

Broadcast operating cash flow was up 64% to $230 million.

Cable networks, including USA, Bravo, Syfy, E!, MSNBC and CNBC, continue to be NBCUniversal's most profitable division.

The cable networks unit raked in $2.3 billion in revenue for the quarter and $912 million in operating cash flow.

During a conference call with Wall Street analysts on Tuesday, Comcast Corp. executives confirmed plans to build a Universal Studios theme park in Beijing. But the ambitious $3-billion venture is at least five years away.

"We are talking after 2020. We haven't even completed the design process and much of our arrangements with Beijing," Burke said.

Theme parks revenue rose 17% to $2.6 billion for the year. The company's investment at its  Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Fla., has been paying off. The company also reported healthy attendance for its Halloween Horror Nights attractions in Los Angeles and Florida.

Parks' fourth-quarter revenue reached $735 million while operating cash flow hit $352 million.

Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts said during the conference call that the purchase of NBCUniversal represents one of the company's most successful investments ever.

Twitter: @MegJamesLAT

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