Thursday is a big day for AMC Entertainment Holdings (AMC -3.73%). The country's leading movie theater operator is opening roughly 100 of its multiplexes today, teasing moviegoers by rolling back ticket prices to a mere $0.15 for one day only. 

A check of a couple of participating theaters on Thursday morning was encouraging at first glance. Most of the day's showings were already sold out. But we're talking about just a couple of a multiplex theater's screens presenting a limited number of showings. Guest counts are also limited to 40% or less of each screen's normal capacity. There's also the novelty of revisiting an experience that has been unavailable for more than five months. Today's sellouts don't matter. Tomorrow (and tomorrow's tomorrow) will be the real proving grounds.

Reclining leather seats at the AMC Lake in the Hills multiplex.

Image source: AMC Entertainment.

Screen test  

Ticket availability for Friday, when prices for the classic throwback movies get bumped up to $5 (and more for new releases), is a different story. The AMC locations I checked had plenty of seats available over the weekend, even for the one new release (the Russell Crowe movie Unhinged). 

There's no denying that AMC is trying its best. It's had five months to spruce up its cleaning protocols. The online ticketing interface that immediately blocks out adjacent seats after someone makes a reservation is doing its part to encourage social distancing. Mask protocols are also being enforced, but it's a different story when someone is already seated and starts eating or drinking during a movie. 

The problem with AMC and all of its smaller peers is that exhibitors were already falling out of favor before folks started worrying about contracting a potentially fatal virus at a screening. The new year was off to a rough start, and the pandemic has only sped up the migration away from the corner multiplex. Folks are now more comfortable with streaming video from home, and movie studios are also seeing that they can go directly to consumers and get away with charging $20 or even $30 for a premium video-on-demand experience if the movie is big enough.

The real test for AMC will come in two weeks when the spy film Tenet hits U.S. theaters as the only high-profile movie coming out anytime soon. Screens will sell out, especially with the short leash on audience capacity. It will have a long tail, especially given the lack of real competition from other releases.

But with major markets including New York City, Miami, Phoenix, and all of California still holding back on giving AMC clearance to reopen, will WarnerMedia regret releasing Tenet so soon? Will it pull out (again) before its Labor Day holiday weekend debut? 

This doesn't have to end badly for AMC. We're already seeing signs that some consumer discretionary stocks are thriving in this climate. Folks are eager for some degree of normalcy, and there's money to spend after saving on summer vacations and gas, as well as the promise of a potential second round of stimulus checks.

The problem is that buying into AMC stock's rally is already discounting some degree of success in what will be a very challenging operating climate. If the masses are staying away from the local multiplex, you should probably stay away from AMC Entertainment.