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AMC Stock Is Soaring Again. How to Make Sense of the Move.

The movie-theater chain's market capitalization is far higher than before the pandemic. That might make sense if investors make some bold assumptions.
AMC Entertainment's theater complex near Broadway in New York City is showing movies again. Angela Weiss / AFP via Getty Images

AMC Entertainment ‘s skyrocketing stock price would be easy to dismiss as just meme-trade madness, that social media-fueled investor frenzy that has launched the likes of GameStop and BlackBerry into speculative territory. 

But it’s possible that traditional investors have missed a fundamental change in the movie theater business—and it wouldn’t be the first time.

Shares of AMC (ticker: AMC) surged 23% on Tuesday, closing at $32.04—just off an all-time high of $36.72 set in late May. That puts the movie-theater chain’s market capitalization at roughly $16 billion, more than 15 times what it was in 2018, a record-breaking year at the box office. Shares were up another 34%, to $42.92, in premarket trading Wednesday.

Even if investors missed an inflection point, though, the math doesn’t add up. The reason might be that market cap isn’t the right measure. Maybe it’s enterprise value, which is essentially market cap and debt. AMC’s enterprise value is about $26 billion, compared with $6.2 billion or so at the end of 2018.

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AMC added debt during the pandemic as theaters in the country’s biggest cities were dark for months. And the numbers make it easy to understand why: The U.S. box office in 2020 generated about $2.1 billion in ticket sales, down 81% from the 2018 record of $11.9 billion.

So, it seems investors have been vexed by movie theater economics. But it wouldn’t be the first time. The industry essentially went belly up at the turn of the millennium. Regal Cinemas, for instance, declared bankruptcy in 2001.

Back then, the industry had plenty of capacity because of a new theater design—stadium seating that gave a better view of the screen. That shift meant movie theater chains had to renovate or risk losing all their patrons to movie theaters that offered the better view. In the end, too many seats and not enough patrons meant the return on the stadium-seating investments never materialized.

The upshot was consolidation. With fewer operators, the number of screens stabilized. Between 2002 and 2007, Regal Cinemas became a cash-generating machine because the stock was mispriced. The stock returned 21% a year on average. The S&P 500 and Dow Jones Industrial Average both returned less than 9% a year on average over the same period.

In those days, Regal Cinema’s enterprise value about $5 billion, or about 50% of total U.S. box office sales. That’s far short of AMC today. Something new has to be different for AMC to be worth it.

Maybe the movie theater business is going to go through another period of consolidation, which can usher in another golden age of returns. AMC’s Tuesday gains, in fact, were catalyzed by new capital raised so the company could go on the offensive, acquiring defunct chains. Monopolies, after all, can be good for stock returns.

If AMC can increase market share and the U.S. box office sales can return to 2018 levels in a few years, total sales at might be $9 billion—$6 billion from tickets and $3 billion from concessions. Sales in 2018 amounted to $5.5 billion.

Then, with better gross profit margins derived from larger scale, AMC might be able to generate $600 million in free cash flow annually, which puts the stock at about a 4% free cash flow yield. The S&P 500 trades for about a 3% free cash flow yield. The numbers can work—if they’re stretched.

There are problems with this scenario, though. There are lots of ifs and mights—and AMC has never generated cash flow like that in the past. Arriving at $600 million in free cash flow is more about justifying current valuations than predicting what is likely.

Also, with mergers and acquisitions, AMC market shares might rise, but there are still competitors. Regal Cinemas is still out there, owned by Cineworld Holdings (CINE. London). So is Cinemark (CNK). There’s not a true monopoly.

AMC and its peers have to deal with streaming, too. Windows for exclusive theater showings are shrinking. The pandemic has accelerated that. And if AMC gets too large and demanding for movie makers, the talent can always go to streaming faster, hurting box office sales.

There is also the problem of the peer stocks. They aren’t trading like this is a brave new world for theaters. Cineworld stock is up 484% from its 52-week low, but shares are still off 72% from all-time highs. Cinemark shares are up 222% from their 52-week low. They are down 47% from their all-time high.

AMC stock, again, is up almost 1,600% from its 52-week low and is down just 13% from its May all-time high.

Wall Street just doesn’t see the potential either. Nine analysts cover the stock. The average analyst price target is about $5. Before the pandemic, the average analyst price target was $15. But there were fewer shares back then. The old target enterprise value was roughly $7 billion. It’s tough to get from $7 billion to $26 billion predicting better margins.

Analysts do have positive free cash flow modeled, though–$13 million in 2022 and $90 million in 2023. That’s a long way from $600 million.

And that’s just another way of saying that AMC bulls are a long way from making the math work.

Write to Al Root at allen.root@dowjones.com

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