NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Despite blockbuster movies such as "X2" and "Matrix" drawing record crowds to multiplexes this summer, investors are not flocking to theater companies' battered stocks.
Stocks of leading movie theater chains continue to stay well below highs hit in 2002, a record year at the box office, even as the industry appears slated to post another strong year.
Building of megaplexes with more than a dozen screens and stadium-style seating has left the industry with an oversupply of screens, despite a continuing string of theater closings. One estimate is that 20 percent of the nation's current 34,000 screens need to close for the economics to improve.
There is concern among investors that the pain that caused 13 different companies in the sector to file for bankruptcy protection since 1999 may not yet be over.
"I think there's still some more pain to come," said Dennis McAlpine, a theater analyst who has an independent research firm, McAlpine Associates. "The real problem is that the new stadium seating megaplexes have changed the makeup of the industry. It means most of the old theaters are obsolete."
But some analysts believe that the industry is in better shape than depressed stock prices suggest. Wachovia Securities fixed income analyst Bishop Cheen says that while he also expects some additional theater closings, he said most of those will come from mom-and-pop chains.
The closings won't come from major exhibitors such as Regal Entertainment Group (RGC: down $0.33 to $20.62, Research, Estimates), the new industry leader formed out of the bankruptcy of several other theater operators, No. 2 AMC Entertainment Inc. (AEN: down $0.32 to $10.55, Research, Estimates) and No. 4 Carmike Cinemas Inc. (CKEC: down $0.01 to $20.00, Research, Estimates), which also emerged from bankruptcy last year.
"The industry is doing remarkably well. It seems to be back from the ashes sooner than anyone anticipated," said Cheen. "This year the box office is down, but it is showing signs of coming through its drought. There's a strong summer slate and a strong fall slate coming. Perhaps this year can be flat or maybe even ahead a little bit. Flat would be a victory."
Cheen said that the screen closures have been slower than the industry expected, but that's because the stronger box office seems to be supporting some of the older theaters longer than expected. He points to a stat released Tuesday by AMC showed attendance per screen now stands at about 1995 levels -- before a building spree drove down that important performance measure and started the financial problems.
Hardly regal treatment for Regal
The industry is doing what it can to catch investor interest. Regal has reported profits since its emergence from Chapter 11 protection. But it has seen little gain in its stock from its first-day close of $21.75 in March 2002.
Regal tried to stir investor interest Monday by announcing a special dividend of $4.55 a share. But after climbing as high as $22.90 in heavy trading, shares closed the day up only 68 cents at $22.09, and were only slightly above that level Wednesday.
"If the equity markets have been reluctant to reward the stock for cash you have on [the] balance sheet, for organic growth you can generate, then the only other alternative to reward shareholders is to use a special dividend," said Cheen. "They have [the] balance sheet to tolerate it."
AMC posted adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization of $52 million in its fiscal fourth quarter ended April 3. That was up 8 percent from a year earlier and a bit better than a $49 million estimate from analysts, according to the company.
But AMC's net loss came to $24.2 million, or 67 cents a share, far worse than the First Call forecast of 24 cents. Analysts following the company don't expect it to post a net profit until its 2005 fiscal year.
AMC says it is primarily done with its theater closings, with only 7 percent of its screens designated for closure and about 75 percent of its remaining screens being megaplexes with stadium seating.
Some companies, such as Cablevision Systems (CVC: Research, Estimates), haven't been able to find buyers for movie theater chains they own.
Analysts believe the overall industry needs to get down to about 30,000 or 31,000 screens before the excess demand is gone. McAlpine says that due to continued building, it'll probably take closing as many as 15 to 20 percent of current screens, or almost 7,000, to end up with the lower number. And leases for some of the theaters won't make all the closings that easy.
"The reason many of them went into bankruptcy in most cases was to try to get out of leases the landlord wouldn't let them out of," he said.
McAlpine also said that despite somewhat optimistic box office outlooks from all the theater owners recently, this is the wrong time to look at the stocks.
"Typically you buy the stock of movie theater companies in April," he said. "By the end of May, with the enthusiasm before the summer movies' releases, you've seen the main move already. You sell them in July and August, after the realism that creeps back in starting in June."