Can IMAX Deliver Big-Screen Profits?

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Come Thursday morning, we'll get a fourth-quarter report from larger-than-life cinema specialist IMAX (NYSE: IMAX  ) . Investors are looking for big news: Share prices have climbed 37% in 2012, including a 14% boost in the past five days. Will the report match IMAX's enormous screens, or is the stock set up for an epic collapse?

The word on the Street
Fellow media technologists have already sowed the seeds of a terrific quarter. Dolby Laboratories (NYSE: DLB  ) mainly used mobile media sales to grow its profit margins, but 3-D cinema expert RealD (NYSE: RLD  ) proved that the semitraditional movie theater still knows how to drive profits.

That said, analysts don't expect any miracles. The average Wall Street estimate calls for $0.14 of adjusted earnings per share on $63.7 million in revenue, down from $0.21 per share and $69.2 million a year ago.

Management doesn't play the earnings guidance game. We do get a steady flow of box office updates from IMAX, though. The midquarter update showed $34.8 million in global ticket sales on the backs of robo-boxing riot Real Steel, Shrek spinoff Puss in Boots by Dreamworks Animation SKG (Nasdaq: DWA  ) , and Spielberg's comic-book tale The Adventures of Tintin. That's a nice but not terribly impressive start.

And then Tom Cruise came along late in the quarter with action romp Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol. That film collected about $53 million in fourth-quarter tickets (and another $28 million so far in the first quarter).

The Ghost Protocol showing played a large part in the recent share price boost. It shows strong momentum under a bankable action vehicle, showing that the IMAX model still works wonders for a certain kind of high-impact cinema.

Stamp my passport, please
Box office results are only one ingredient in IMAX's profit stew. Sales and installation of projection systems deliver revenue about equal to film rentals and revenue sharing arrangements, and are just as profitable. System maintenance adds another dash of zing to the concoction.

It's a classic razor blades-and-handles model. IMAX makes money on system sales, then again when people watch movies in the infrastructure it built, and again when the projectors and sound systems need a touch of TLC.

That's why system deals are so important to IMAX investors, and why IMAX is pushing so hard to keep growing overseas. Ticket sales are growing faster outside our borders than inside, and IMAX hasn't penetrated the available theater sites in Europe and Asia like it has in America. The company is busy signing theater deals in China, India, and Russia right now. There are 217 IMAX theaters either open or contracted in China today and management obviously wants more.

Count the potential ticket takers in those massive markets and cue the ringing of cash register bells. Keep a close eye on the international expansion numbers in this report.

Coming attractions
You should also draw a bead on the projected screen counts for The Dark Knight Rises as the Christopher Nolan-helmed Batman sequel should score box office gold for producer Time Warner (NYSE: TWX  ) -- and for IMAX. Like Ghost Protocol, this title sits squarely in the firm's heart-pounding-action wheelhouse. Looking further out, you'll find The Avengers and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey providing fertile soil for both box office growth and more theater builds. Nothing motivates expensive system deals like proven ticket-selling success, after all.

IMAX is an exciting stock for international investors, what with all that growth in the BRIC block. But our top analysts have found an even more thrilling investment that capitalizes on the developing world. Click here to grab a copy of The Motley Fool's Top Stock for 2012 and read all about it. But hurry and grab it right now -- that special report won't be free forever.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies mentioned. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Dolby Laboratories, DreamWorks Animation SKG, and IMAX. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinion, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Check out Anders' holdings and bio, or follow him on Twitter and Google+. We have a disclosure policy.

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