Movie-theater operator Carmike Cinemas (Nasdaq: CKEC ) is soaring today. Its stellar fourth-quarter performance appears to have shocked investors, sending the stock up by about 8% on an otherwise rather blah market day. But really, you should have seen this coming. And you shouldn't be surprised the next time it happens.
Carmike's surprise rests on 3-D technology, mostly courtesy of James Cameron's Avatar. Thanks to the higher ticket prices of Avatar's 3-D showings, Carmike walked away with 7% higher average ticket prices than in the year-ago period, utterly crushing analyst estimates.
This weekend, Walt Disney (NYSE: DIS ) pushed Avatar out of many 3-D and IMAX (Nasdaq: IMAX ) screens with its debut of Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland. At an estimated domestic box office of $116 million, Alice passed Avatar's opening weekend with ease, and proved that 3-D money machines are a repeatable phenomenon. In all fairness, Alice stars Johnny Depp under Tim Burton's direction, and it's a retelling of a proven blockbuster story in both film and literature. The opening-day records set by Alice may stand the test of time better than those of Avatar, even though this second 3-dimensional hit of the season probably won't do $2.5 billion of worldwide business like the blue aliens did.
But Carmike's results hammer home the point I'm trying to make: Thanks to 3-D movies and widespread IMAX installations, movie theaters are no longer just places where we spend our hard-earned dollars. They're now opportunities for us to make money, too. I expect sterling results when IMAX reports earnings Thursday morning, and likewise when Marcus (NYSE: MCS ) and Regal Entertainment Group (NYSE: RGC ) follow suit in the coming weeks.
Some of these stocks have already enjoyed the 3-D trend to some degree, as Carmike did today, but only IMAX and Cinemark Holdings (NYSE: CNK ) have outperformed the market to any significant degree in recent months. That gives us a window of opportunity to board this crazy train before everyone realizes that 3-D movies are here to stay, and that they will make business better for theater chains of all shapes and sizes.
Home theaters will follow suit in due time, as the likes of Samsung and Sony (NYSE: SNE ) do their best to introduce modern 3-D technologies into your living room. But I believe it'll take years to move from cinemas to couches, particularly when special-effects feasts like Avatar are so tailor-made for a larger-than-life experience. So your cinema stocks will have a couple of years to work their magic in your portfolio.
Which theater stock would you buy today? Maybe you prefer film studios such as Disney and Sony? Break out the popcorn and start your movie talk in the comments section below. Please turn off your cell phones.