Theater specialist IMAX (IMAX 0.46%) earns money in two different ways: building the theaters that incorporate its big-screen technology, and collecting revenue from moviegoers. Those two businesses aren't always strong at the same time, though, with theater system sales and leases not necessarily having any link to the slate of Hollywood features that tends to drive box office success.

Coming into Friday's first-quarter financial report, IMAX investors believed that both revenue and earnings would decline from year-ago levels, but they wanted to see signs that the remainder of the year would provide better numbers. IMAX's results suggested exactly that, with solid box office performance helping to make up for poor system sales figures and pointing the way toward what could be a record year for the theater specialist.

The exterior of an IMAX theater building on a partly cloudy day

Image source: IMAX.

How IMAX started 2019

IMAX's first-quarter financial results didn't live up to everyone's expectations. Revenue of $80.2 million was down almost 6% from year-earlier levels, and that was an even steeper decline than the 4.5% drop most investors were looking to see. Adjusted net income attributable to shareholders came in at $10.8 million, and that produced adjusted earnings of $0.18 per share, matching the consensus forecast among those following the stock.

box office performance stood out as a positive contributor to IMAX's results. Gross box office from IMAX films reached $256.3 million, up 4% from year-ago levels, as 24 films were released during the period. That's up from 22 films in last year's first quarter, and IMAX produced a 19% rise in box office receipts in China to make it the second-strongest quarter ever for the theater operator in that booming market.

The solid box office gains helped boost IMAX's network business results. Segment revenue climbed 2% to $45.8 million, with the gain coming exclusively from rising digital media remastering activity. Joint revenue-sharing arrangements saw flat sales from year-ago levels. Overall, segment gross margin fell more than a percentage point to 68.9%, weighing on profitability.

However, in the theater business segment, revenue dropped 13% from where it was a year ago. IMAX installed only six full new theater systems using sales or sales-type leases, and although the company did have eight installations of theaters under traditional or hybrid joint revenue-sharing arrangements as well as three upgrades of existing locations, they weren't enough to make up for the sales shortfall. Gross margin fell below typical historical levels because of the mix of systems, as well as the rollout of systems using IMAX with Laser technology. IMAX signed 14 new theaters for the period, down from 45 a year ago, and brought in nine upgrade signings as well.

Will 2019 be golden for IMAX?

Despite the mixed performance, CEO Richard Gelfond was optimistic about the future. "Our achievements in 2018 set the stage for IMAX to have a blockbuster year in 2019," Gelfond said. "Given our better than anticipated start in the first quarter, we are even more confident that 2019 will deliver strong growth in [pre-tax operating earnings] and return on capital."

In particular, the CEO pointed to this weekend's release of Avengers: Endgame as the first of many highly anticipated films that could drive IMAX's strongest box office year ever. Pre-sales of tickets for the latest Avengers film have come in at $21 million, which is 70% higher than what the last installment of the franchise brought in. At the same time, though, Gelfond is pleased with the reach of the theater operator's content, cultivating the idea that "IMAX empowers the world's most innovative content creators with unparalleled end-to-end technology and a global network spanning more than 80 countries."

Specifically, IMAX increased its projections for full-year 2019 box office receipts. The company now believes global box office numbers will rise by low double-digit percentages from 2018 figures, based on the strength of a "robust lineup of tentpole films ahead" over the course of the year.

IMAX shareholders seemed to put the revenue shortfall behind them, and the stock climbed more than 2% in pre-market trading following the announcement. With so much promise for the films that IMAX will show on its screens in the coming year, investors are looking beyond the short run to enjoy what could be a cascade of profit for the theater giant in the remainder of 2019.