Movie theatre chain stocks collapse during dismal summer

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Woe unto those who have owned stock in movie theaters this summer, as their investments have been thrashed even in a bull market, the impetus being lousy attendance in the past three months.

The largest chain, AMC Entertainment, with 11,083 screens in 1,009 theaters, has been hit hardest, its shares dropping a dramatic 45 percent since Memorial Day while the Dow Jones Industrial Average has gained nearly 4 percent.

Regal Entertainment (7,379 screens in 566 theaters) has seen shares plunge 28 percent in the same time frame while shares of Cinemark Holdings (5,926 screens in 529 theaters) have dropped 18 percent.

Owners of Imax, which operates a network of 1,257 giant movie screens at theaters worldwide, watched their shares plunge 31 percent while owners of National Cinemedia, the company most responsible for putting advertising on movie screens, saw their shares shed 25 percent of their value since Memorial Day.

Even with It, the scary clown movie from Warner Bros. and Kingsman: The Golden Circle from Twentieth Century Fox yet to come, when final third-quarter numbers come in FBR Capital Markets analyst Barton Crockett predicts a domestic box office of $2.36 billion, which would be nearly a 21 percent slide compared with the year prior.

Because of a strong first quarter and what he predicts will be a strong fourth quarter, the box office should rebound for the entire year, but it will still fall 3.2 percent to $11.01 billion on an annual basis, Crockett predicts.

Ironically, year-over-year totals will decline even though this year's top three movies thus far — Beauty and the Beast, Star Wars: The Last Jedi (both from Disney) and Wonder Woman (from Warner Bros.) — have outperformed last year's top three, which were Finding Dory, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Captain America: Civil War (all three of which hail from Disney).

In the fourth quarter analysts are expecting big things from Justice League, Thor: Ragnarok and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, then another two Star Wars films next year. But even if the box office rebounds in the near term, it could be tough sledding for the long haul if premium video on demand becomes reality.

Studios may launch PVOD — where consumers get a movie on their TV screens for about $30 shortly after its release into theaters — as early as this year, say some observers. MoffettNathanson Research analyst Robert Fishman estimates that PVOD could cost the movie exhibition industry $380 million annually.

"Until we get some resolution on PVOD, it will be difficult for the theater stocks to make sustained headway," says Steven Birenberg of Northlake Capital Management.

On a bullish note, moviegoers love the recliner seats and other amenities theater chains have been adding lately, but even there, Birenberg worries that some consumers will be of the attitude: "Tried it once, but it did not change my moviegoing frequency."

Eric Wold of B.Riley, on the other hand, sees the drop in stock prices as a buying opportunity for Cinemark, Regal and AMC, due largely to upgrades at movie theaters.

"The issues that have plagued recent box office trends were mostly slate-specific and should not have any bearing on future expectations," he said in a research report.

As for the studios that make and distribute the movies, Crockett sees Paramount faring the worst this year when he compares the top 20 movies from that studio compared to its top 20 the year prior. On those terms, he estimates a 27 percent decline year-over-year.

Disney is next with a 23 percent decline, followed by Twentieth Century Fox with a 17 percent drop then Sony with a 2 percent fall. Warner Bros. and Universal should rise 7 percent and 9 percent, respectively, while Lionsgate will shoot up 24 percent, courtesy of La La Land and John Wick: Chapter Two.

Even with a dramatic drop from one year to the next, Disney should dominate the other studios, with its top 20 films raking in $2.32 billion in 2017, ahead of second-place Warner Bros. at $2.03 billion.--The Hollywood Reporter