AMC: The Sequel

Let's see if the projectionist can screen this right the second time. AMC Theaters is filing to go public as Marquee Holdings again. The giant multiplex operator pulled its springtime IPO after watching rival Cinemark Holdings (NYSE: CNK  ) tank after beating it to the opening bell.

The chains were rushing to go public, hoping to cash in on investor excitement over a slate of summer theatrical releases that was brimming with potential blockbusters and eagerly anticipated sequels.

The industry got its wish. It has been a strong season at the multiplex. But the market's appetite for the exhibitors themselves has yet to be exhibited. Cinemark is still trading below its $19 IPO price. Failing to live up to the hype, Carmike Cinemas (Nasdaq: CKEC  ) and market leader Regal (NYSE: RGC  ) are trading well below their springtime highs. Even digital ad specialist National CineMedia (Nasdaq: NCMI  ) , a high-growth cinema play when it comes to in-theater marketing, is trading 18% off its June peak.

AMC's timing isn't necessarily better as it attempts to tap the equity market again. But the hot summer season should reflect kindly on the company's near-term performance. It posted a welcome profit in its first fiscal quarter of 2008, which ended in June, but did so on a 4% dip in total revenues. It's hard to consider this a growth industry -- the company closed more theaters than it opened during the quarter. It now watches over 377 theaters housing 5,300 screens, all but 13% of them in the United States.

Skeptical investors may wonder if the profits will keep coming now that Peter Parker, Princess Fiona, Harry Potter, and Captain Jack Sparrow are fading to black. AMC won't wow audiences with its past -- it's coming to market with $1.9 billion in debt and an unenviable streak of posting operating losses in each of the past nine years.

This doesn't necessarily mean that the future is bleak for AMC and its peers. The spirit of innovation is hungry. Chains are teaming up with IMAX (Nasdaq: IMAX  ) to transform ordinary screens into higher-grossing bigger-screen experiences. The move to digital projection systems -- fueled by companies like Thomson (NYSE: TMS  ) and AccessIT (Nasdaq: AIXD  ) -- will give exhibitors greater programming flexibility in the future, saving studios on costly prints.

Still, there's little reason to get excited about AMC. That may ultimately lead to another abandoned filing unless a humbler Marquee Holdings is willing to settle for less. Big screens, little expectations? So much for a Hollywood ending.

Here's a triplex of trailers to learn more about AMC's botched IPO earlier this year:


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