It's finally time to get the projectors running again at many of the screens run by the world's leading movie theater operator. AMC Entertainment Holdings (AMC 13.81%) will open roughly 100 of its multiplexes on Aug. 20, having failed to meet its earlier goal of getting back to business on July 15 after the studios behind some of the summer's biggest releases got cold feet.
AMC expects to have two-thirds of its U.S. locations open by Sept. 3, and the rest will have to wait for clearance from state and local authorities. There will be plenty of voids in next week's restart. There aren't any theaters in California or New York among the 100 locations resuming operations. South Florida and other local hotbeds of COVID-19 cases will also be sitting out next week's red carpet rollout. Aug. 20 will be a big milestone for AMC Entertainment, but it's just the first of many steps that it will have to execute well if it has a chance to survive. Unfortunately for AMC, it's not the only one that will have a hand in deciding if it lives or dies this year.
The new normal won't be fun for AMC. It's had to make safety revisions across its movie houses, and the biggest obstacle is that it will initially be limiting audience counts to no more than 30% of a theater's capacity. With more than two-thirds of its seats empty, it's going to be hard to generate substantial revenue and nearly impossible to turn a profit.
Studios behind some of the biggest movies have also come to the realization that big-budget releases aren't going to succeed this summer off the multiplex alone. They will either push out debut dates or lean on premium video on demand to keep losses at a minimum.
This brings us to you. The initial trickle of releases is going to be weak, and AMC is filling the void by bringing back some classic films. AMC will be making those screenings cheaper, of course. It even has a ridiculous promotion of $0.15 tickets for showings on Aug. 20 -- a rollback to 1920 pricing. Shareholders better hope the same price point doesn't apply to their stock.
You won't entirely love the experience. Concession prices will be lower, but the popcorn and soft drink refills aren't coming back right now. The menu is also being scaled back to keep things simple. The mask requirement is also going to keep some people at home. The only time a guest can remove their face covering is when they are actively eating or drinking. It won't be long before you hear about brawls breaking out between guests on that front.
This isn't AMC's first time at this particular rodeo. It has already opened more than half of its theaters in Europe and the Middle East, and it expects to have the remaining screens available internationally by Aug. 26. This will still be a big challenge for AMC.
There is too much that is outside of its control. Even if AMC Entertainment executes flawlessly, it's still at the mercy of movie studios and the pandemic itself. If studios continue to find success in digital delivery or if the initial box office receipts are weak, you won't find too many movie producers in a hurry to get back to the silver screen. If COVID-19 exhibits another surge -- and if cases get traced back to a multiplex screening -- AMC and its smaller peers will run out of money before consumers regain the confidence to head back to the local theater.
AMC is still not out of the woods when it comes to sparing its shareholders a penny stock fate. It's not just the end of a screening that's fading to black. As important as next week will be, there is so much that can still go wrong here. AMC is taking a big step up, but it's on a creaking staircase that can collapse at any minute.