Movie theater chains got a late-year bump in ticket sales that pushed the 2016 box office take slightly above the prior year's level, giving the theater exhibitors group an unexpected improvement over 2015's total, as well as a strong tailwind entering 2017.
The stocks of the major exhibitors had an uneven performance throughout 2016. Some names, such as AMC Entertainment (AMC) , which rose 40%, had banner years, but others, such as Regal Entertainment (RGC) , which underperformed the S&P 500's 9.5%, trailed the bull market, as investors fretted about some notable box office flops. Media analysts covering the sector remain upbeat about the prospects in 2017 and beyond.
"We continue to have a positive view towards the companies within our exhibition industry universe," Eric Handler, an analyst and managing director at MKM Partners said in a recent research note. In an interview with TheStreet, Handler suggested he was increasingly bullish longer term, pointing to what shapes up as an attractive slate of titles set for release late this year and into next year.
Of course, investments in movie exhibitors amounts to more than just whether the sequel to some super-hero film sells more tickets than it cost to make. Last year's new record domestic box office take of $11.4 billion demonstrated the charisma of the movie-going experience, something that helps offset several new trends in the entertainment business - the improvements in home viewing technology and the shorter windows before theatrical releases are available to consumers - that could be seen as threats to the long-term viability of out-of-home movie viewing.
The box office record "provided further evidence that theatrical exhibitors and studios have created multiple incentives ... for large audiences in various demographic categories to attend movies in theaters in sufficiently large numbers to counter the threat from large and growing alternative viewing options," James Goss, a media analyst at Barrington Research, said in a report, and added in an email to TheStreet that the firm remained constructive on the exhibitor group as a whole.
Theater chains have invested in more luxurious seating alternatives - more spacious chairs with upscale textures such as leather - as well as higher quality concession options. It's no longer a choice simply of Milk Duds that end up on the floor or hot dogs on those rollers that seem like they've been spinning for days.
Now theater-goers can order full meals with restaurant quality table service, along with options for beer or wine. Of course, they're amenities that customers pay for, but proponents of the group argue that there aren't many bargain outings to Wrigley Field these days. The added revenue from those concessions, of course, goes right to the exhibitors' top line.
Eric Wold, a media and entertainment analyst at B. Riley, this week named Imax (IMAX) as the firm's top media sector pick for 2017, arguing that the cutting edge theater operator should bounce back from its uneven 2016 performance, when its stock trailed the gains in the sector..
However, there are some characteristics that make some names more attractive investment opportunities than their peers. MKM's Handler favors AMC Entertainment, which recently closed on its acquisition of the Carmike chain, as well as IMAX and Cinemark (CNK) for their international exposure.
But it will pay to be selective. Regal Entertainment, which surrendured its slot as the biggest theater operator following the AMC/Carmike combination, has an overhang that could limit the stock's appreciation this year. The company's long-time financial owner, billionaire Philip Anschutz, has been selling big stakes in Regal recently, unloading 13,000 shares in November, for instance. There's speculation that when the stock price creeps up to the mid $20s - it's currently at $21.50 - he might plunge another slug of his holdings on the market again.