In this episode of Industry Focus: Consumer Goods, Emily Flippen chats with Dan Kline about the movie industry and movie theaters. They talk about how movie theaters are dealing with big- release pullbacks and what it will take to get to pre-pandemic levels. They also discuss movie screens and the difficulties of repurposing them and possible clever solutions movie theaters can adopt.

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This video was recorded on September 28, 2020.

Emily Flippen: Welcome to Industry Focus. I'm the host of your Consumer Goods-focused episode, Emily Flippen. Today is Tuesday, October 6th, at least for all of you people who are listening at home, since we're [laughs] actually pre-recording this episode on September 28th. But I am joined by the one and only, Dan Kline. Dan, thanks for joining.

Dan Kline: Hey, there, Emily. Thanks for having me in the future.

Flippen: Yeah, I know, I love pre-recording, because you know, who knows what could happen between the 28th and the 6th, hopefully nothing crazy. I'm actually going out on vacation, which is why we're pre-recording this. But we're talking about a pretty evergreen topic today.

Kline: Hey, who knows what Elon Musk will do between now and the 6th? But that probably won't affect the topic we're discussing.

Flippen: [laughs] Hopefully not. Yeah, as you alluded to, we're going to be talking about the movie industry today, and doing a check-in with how movie theaters and studios have been dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. But I do want to let all of our listeners know that before we get into it today, stick around to the end, because we have some bittersweet news that we'll be getting to at the end of today's show. So, please do stay put for the second half or tail end of today's discussion.

But without any further do, Dan, let's talk about some of the themes we've been seeing with movies recently. We're getting news this week, it'll be old news come October 6th, but we're getting news this week that Black Widow is going to be pushed back from November 6th to May 2021 in terms of its launch. How are you seeing movie theaters deal with these pullbacks?

Kline: They're not. So, they're operating a business that needs products and they don't have products. I was looking at the top five for last week and the numbers were abysmal. You know, maybe Tenet was No. 1 and it did, like, $2.6 million. Empire Strikes Back was in the top five. This was not good. They're trying to get people to go to the movies. But here's the reality, and we've talked about this, I'm willing to take certain risks. I was willing to go to Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) World, which is largely outside, where they're taking good precautions. I like Empire Strikes Back. Normally, I'd go see that in a theater, but even in a distanced theater, you're still in close space with people who aren't necessarily wearing masks. I live in a state where there's no rules, Florida has decided everything is fine, let's open up the bars and restaurants, so that's a problem.

And I don't necessarily want to be in a movie theater, because it's just not necessary. Like, entertainment is necessary, but the entertainment experience of seeing a movie, I can largely duplicate at home. Do the best you can with building a pillow fort, you cannot duplicate Disney World in your apartment.

So, you know, we're all choosing which risks we take. I don't think a lot of us are going to take risks to see a movie that would have gone direct-to-streaming starring Ryan Phillippe. And I think there's, like, three of those in theaters now. It is not a good situation. Every movie that was shelved, like, New Mutants; that's one of the top five too now. That movie was just a clunker. They knew it was going to be bad; it was sitting on a shelf; they didn't know what to do with it. So, they're putting stuff out there. Look, it's a bad, bad time to be in the movie business.

Flippen: It's funny you say that, because while I agree that I wouldn't go out of my way to go see a movie, because anything that's not necessary right now is an increased risk. But the funny thing is, I don't even know about movies that are being released. And over 70% of movie theaters in North America right now are reopened, so it is something that we have access to. Is it just a situation where people don't know the movies that are coming out, and as such they don't know that they can go see movies, or do people just not want to risk themselves for such low budget movies?

Kline: It's a little of both, because even when it's a high budget movie like Tenet, how much advertising did they really do? There was already some advertising. Or something like Mulan. Mulan is pushing you to Disney+, it's not showing in theaters in the U.S. How many people are looking up, when can I go see Mulan in the theater? It's a really confusing system. Bill & Ted's, I don't really know why they put that out, they could have just waited, there's nothing timely about that movie. But that being said, that is a digital release, but it is in some theaters, I think.

It's very confusing to follow, and how much money you're going to spend advertising the latest Russell Crowe movie that Liam Neeson turned down. It's a lot of just garbage that's out there. So, unless you're actively looking for theater listings, it's hard to figure out what to see and what you could see in a theater. And even this Empire Strikes Back rerelease. I'm a big Star Wars fan, one of my friends is a writer for Star Wars, in fact an editor for StarWars.com. I had no idea Empire Strikes Back was being rereleased into theaters. There's a lot of noise, it's tricky to know where anything is.

And why would you spend a lot of money pushing people to theaters right now, when you're better off pushing them to streaming video-on-demand where, in theory, you make more money, or in Disney's case, you could at least drive Disney+ downloads.

Flippen: So, it's interesting you point that out, because we can talk about that in the context of Tenet. You mentioned, Tenet is still in the top five in the United States right now. And it was a big budget film, had a lot of excitement, granted maybe not as much advertising as it would have had if it hadn't been released during a global pandemic, but there was hype coming into that release. And it was almost an experiment within itself to see if a big budget film could pull in the viewership that would be needed to make it a profitable release.

Would you say looking at the numbers for Tenet over the past month or so, is Tenet of failure, at least in the U.S.?

Kline: In the U.S., sure, it's a failure. But Christopher Nolan is a prestige director who makes $200 million movies that make money. And this movie will make money. Now, that might take a lot of tricks. This film, would it shock you if I said Tenet does $2 million at the U.S. box office for the next 10 weeks. So, OK, that's another $20 million. Maybe in next Spring or whenever there's a vaccine, we're all totally good with going to the movies, Tenet feels like the type of movie you rerelease. You know, maybe you rerelease it -- who knows what the Oscar rules will look like right now, because right now Tenet wins every Oscar, but you're going to have to nominate Scoob!, [laughs] so, we're in a really tough situation. Actually, you wouldn't be able to, because it didn't come out in theaters. So, you would probably have to nominate, you know, one of those Ryan Phillippe movies I was talking about, or The Croods 2, which is going to be in theaters. So, I think it's a really weird situation.

What I actually think is encouraging for Tenet is how well it's doing around the world, where it's shown that in China where they've largely gotten the virus, at least publicly, under control, that people will go to the movies. And you know I hate when people say the new normal. I think there's a few new normals, like, we're going to be a little more open to the guy -- you know, people at work who don't feel well staying home, but I don't think not going to the movies is a new normal. That said, going to the movies less was something that was happening anyway. I'm someone who loves the movies, and I was kind of less willing to go for a non-blockbuster, and it's not because movies are expensive, because I don't think movies are expensive for the amount of entertainment you're getting for your ticket price.

That being said, most movies play just fine at home. And my cats live at home, all my snacks are at home, it's way better to see a romantic comedy on your couch when you could hit pause, than it is to go see it in a theater. Are we still going to see Star Wars, Avengers, "very fast super furious," whatever it is, we're going to see all those movies? But that change was under way anyway. So, I do think for blockbusters, we will return to normal. And they're going to push Black Widow and Wonder Woman and any other movie that they spent this kind of money on, they're going to push it until we know people will go to movie theaters.

Flippen: I'm happy you pointed out the trend that was already happening for theaters pre-pandemic, because viewership was already declining, it was already really dependent upon big budget films to get feet through the doors. And that's even in comparison to countries like China, where viewership was rising and has been rising as a number of self-produced films, right, so, like, local Chinese films have really taken off at the national level. And demand for movies has just consistently been greater than demand here in the United States for movies. So, this was a trend that was already under way.

And if you don't think that viewership is going to dramatically increase post-pandemic, and it doesn't sound like you think that that's going to happen, that there's going to be a buildup. Maybe a little bit of a buildup for demand, but nothing permanent. What does it take to get the movie theater back to pre-pandemic levels of viewership?

Kline: If everything is safe, we all want to see Wonder Woman, we all want to see Black Widow. There's definitely movies that can drive that, and you need those event films. But again, it has to be an event film at a time where we all feel really good about going to the movies, and I don't know when that's going to be. You know, is that going to be this holiday season? Almost certainly not. Is it going to be early next year? It really depends on if the disease is under control. Because, look, you can go to a restaurant and be careful, and no one is sitting behind you who might sneeze on you. The level of, sort of, potential danger in a movie theater, whether it's true or not, it feels high. So, that's the kind of thing where I do think we'll recover.

I also think we have way too many movie theater screens; and we've talked about this. It's really hard for a mall to repurpose a movie theater. So, they're going to have to be clever, they're going to have to have more concerts being broadcast on movie theaters, they're going to have to bring in bars to movie theaters so they can do things like, you know, UFC events and have it actually be fun as opposed to UFC event where why would I choose to go to a movie theater to watch it when I could go to a bar and watch it. And the bar has wings and the movie theater doesn't, you know, and that kind of thing. Corporate meetings, I think, could be a revenue source. Maybe even some school events. In a world of more kids going to school distanced, and I don't mean the current forced distance, I mean more choosing to do an online education. You might be able to do some things like commencements and other things where you are gathering people from an area and putting them in a movie theater, or speeches, or major public speakers, you're going to have to really think long and hard. And we're going to have to get rid of some movie theaters, like, there's just too many screens right now.

Flippen: This is anecdotal, so take it with a grain of salt. But The Motley Fool is based out of or near Washington DC, and in Washington DC there's a big train station, Union Station. And at the basement level of Union Station there used to be a movie theater. And it went under, went out of business. Who's going to see movies [laughs] while they wait on their train, not very many people as it turns out. But that entire basement level was a movie theater and a food court. The food court stayed; the movie theater went away. And it was vacant. It must've been vacant for somewhere between five to 10 years I would guess. Somebody can probably fact check me on that. The point was, it was vacant for a long amount of time, and it wasn't until just recently that that location was partially [laughs] repurposed to be a Walgreens, it was just impossible for Union Station to find something that could take over the footprint that was this old movie theater. So, it really is a dire situation not only for the landlords and the businesses that are sitting on retail footprints of giant movie theaters that are hard to repurpose. I love your ideas, I think they should hire you to repurpose your ideas, you know, to find something useful to do with them.

But the bigger concern is, obviously, for the AMCs and the Cinemarks of the world, that are sitting on these retail footprints, that are trying to get viewership back up, especially here in North America, and it's simply not happening. So, when you look at the two chains -- I'll use AMC and Cinemark as prime examples -- financially speaking, even pre-pandemic, but especially now, they're looking pretty financially fragile. AMC has net debt of over $10 billion. Cinemark isn't much better at over $3 billion. Do you think one of the big movie theaters goes bankrupt as a result of these movies delays?

Kline: I think they should. I think strategically it's a good idea. Because, look, we talked about this with their landlords. The idea of them being forced to liquidate seems pretty low, because who's going to step in and buy the assets of an out-of-business movie theater chain. So, if you're Simon Property Group or Brookfield -- there are a lot of movie theaters in malls, you know, there's movie theaters in other places as well -- you're going to work with them on lease payments. Because it isn't the same. Let's say a Walmart leaves a location. Well, it's a big, flat location that could be one big store, it could be 10 small stores, it could be an office park. There's a lot of ways to convert that space. A movie theater has the theater, the stands, the part where you have to climb up. And that's really difficult. So, what do you do, go in and level everything, do you knock the whole building down? It is a really difficult building to repurpose. Can you do some things where you knock out some screens and maybe have, you know, concerts or live events in some of them? Sure. But we probably have too many of those venues anyway right now. So, it is a really tricky space.

And I would assume, they can use either actual Chapter 11 or the threat of Chapter 11 to get some flexibility here. I also think it benefits Disney and Comcast for there to be movie theaters. To a lesser extent, you know, CBS-Viacom, [ViacomCBS] to a lesser extent Sony. I don't think it's out of the question that those businesses take a stake in movie theaters. Right now, the problem is, they're not doing great either. You know Disney is struggling with theme parks not being open all around the world or being open at limited capacity. They don't have a movie business right now; that hurts them. The advertising business is hurt; that hurts them. But it wouldn't shock me if each of those companies put up a couple of billion dollars to ensure that they, A., have a say in movie theaters, and B., that they survive. But, no, I don't think the movie business is going to look anything like what it looks like right now.

Flippen: And when you look forward to the movie business, you just said you don't think it looks anything like what it looks like right now; you're talking about the retail footprint. But let's think about some of the innovations that have happened for movies. You mentioned earlier Mulan going direct-to-streaming, kind of that being an experiment within itself. And you mentioned that you maybe wouldn't be surprised to see more movies being streamed like this. Do you think it's only going to be small budget movies that get streamed automatically to services like Disney+ or is it possible that what would have been semi-decent blockbuster movies go direct-to-streaming now?

Kline: Yeah, I think more movies will be purchased by Netflix or made by Disney+ for the express purpose of running on those services. There will also be more movies that come out at a modest budget with some sort of theatrical run, but a much faster move to streaming video; that's the AMC deal with Comcast, it allows for a 17-day turnaround, basically you get three weekends.

Now, just because that deals in place doesn't mean they're going to use it for, say, the next Jurassic Park movie, that might be a movie where they want the exhibitors to really play it up. And they might say to you, we're going to keep this exclusively in your channel for 90 days, like, just like we used to, or 60 days, or only going to stream it in markets where you don't have theaters. Like, there's a lot you can do. And they are sharing some of that revenue back with the theater chains, but they didn't really talk about how that would work, and I'm very skeptical that that's going to be meaningful revenue for the theater chains. But I don't think we know what the model is.

Because here's the problem. So, you take a movie like Trolls World Tour, which admittedly did well on streaming video, because it was early in the pandemic when we were perhaps least equipped to deal with the pandemic, when society was most shut down, that movie was probably more profitable making less money than if it had a traditional theatrical release. What we don't know is, does that mean it's going to have much less value as an archival title on Peacock or whatever platform they put it on? Is it going to sell less DVDs; not that that's a big part of the market? Is it going to be traditionally rented in the $3.99 to $4.99 window less often? So, it looks better now, but we don't know the, sort of, two years from now picture.

Something like the Bill & Ted movie, that might be like the other Bill & Ted movies where it's a sneaky hit, where it just makes money for a really long time because people like it and the people who like it are willing to buy it or pay to rent it or watch it on whatever platform it's licensed to. But I think right now, Emily, it was always hard to know if a movie made money. You know, if you work in the movie business and you have a cut of the profit, that was always a frustrating thing. Now, nobody knows, it's super tricky. Look, you're going to have a lot more things like The Rock signs a $20 million deal to make a movie with Netflix where they know their metrics and it's not tied to box office. Something like The Irishman, would that have been a hit if you had to pay for it, I'm not sure it would have been. Does it make a ton of sense on Netflix? It does.

So, aside from the biggest IP and directors like Christopher Nolan that want that big cinematic experience -- and look, five years from now it might not be viable for a Christopher Nolan to spend $200 million on a movie whose plot you can't explain, that can't be marketed because that would tell you what the movie is and then you wouldn't want to see it. That was a very tricky play anyway. So, we might just have a lot less theatrical releases.

But look, we're in a time where the best movies are television. If you told me, pay $8 every Friday to go watch The Mandalorian for 50 minutes on a movie screen, I would totally do that. So, it's a golden age for content, that content just might not look like movies for some of it.

Flippen: I have one last question for you here, kind of, about this studio aspect of the movie business. We've seen a slower return to normalcy from the studios themselves, some people have chalked it up to the fact that studios, largely based in California, have been in the markets that have been the most restrictive and hardest hit by the pandemic. And that's somewhat of a decent argument. But do you think studios, especially the big ones, like, Walt Disney and Warner Bros., do you think they're right to withhold their movie backlog from 2020 into 2021?

Kline: Yeah, I think they have to. They invested in these movies, so why would they put them out at a time. Their job isn't helping the theaters, and as much as they want to help the theaters, they'll -- you know, you want to put on old movies? Whatever you want, take whatever you want from the vault, even though that might hurt us on Disney+ a little bit. They're going to do that. But they're not releasing, you know, the next Fast & Furious or the next Avengers or whatever it is in a time period where they're not going to maximize how much money they make. Because all big movies, with the exception of things like Tenet, they're all franchises. So, if you put out Fast & Furious 9, I think we're up to nine, and it only does 60% of what it was expected to do, but it helps people get confident to go back into theaters, that's going to hurt Fast & Furious 10 most likely, so they're not going to do that.

I mean, I've talked a lot about how the cruise lines are giving away cruises because they want people like me, like to have footage of us going, hey! It's OK! It's safe, like, come back to the boat! Movie theaters want that too, they're just going to have to do it person-by-person word-of-mouth. And here's the reality, it isn't that safe to go to the movies. I'm sure some places are doing distancing better than others, but I know the 18-plex movie theater near me, I think it's actually 19, has like two bathrooms. Like, it's always really crowded to go to the bathroom. I don't know how you would do the halls to make that line longer, because there's not a lot of places to do distancing, and it's going to be a very tough road back for the movie business.

Flippen: And with that, now we're to the part of the show that I think we both maybe have been dreading a little bit. And we have some news that we want to share with the audience. I mentioned at the offset that this was bittersweet news, it's really bitter mostly [laughs] for me, a little bit more sweet for you, Dan. But I'll let you do the honor, I guess, of sharing that with our listeners.

Kline: It's very difficult for me as well, and we'll talk about why as we go. But this is my last podcast as a, I'd say employee, but I'm not an employee, but as a person who works for The Motley Fool. And that was not an easy decision. Leaving our audience, our podcast audience, our Fool Live audience, is probably the second hardest part of all of this, the hardest part is not getting to work with Emily and many of the other people I get to work with, but Emily more than anyone. And I will point out that as the pandemic happened, Emily and I knew each other, we've done some podcasts in studio, we were certainly friendly and chatty, but I wouldn't have said we were friends, like, I wouldn't have said we actually -- I don't know that you were on my list of like, hey, I'm going to be in town, do you want to go to dinner? You were probably on my broader list of, hey, I'm going to be in town, because you needed to know for the podcast, but you probably weren't on my social list. And in the past seven months you've become the single person I communicate [laughs] with most in a day, many days. And that is going to be hard to walk away from.

But I have to say, I've been here six plus years and I'm a different person, I am a better person, I am a better investor, but that's super-irrelevant. That's great for my career and all, but literally, the way I look at the world has been changed by, sort of, The Foolish philosophies and all these gracious people I've met. I come from the newspaper business, I mean I've done many other things as we've often joked about, but the newspaper business is cutthroat. You might be working on a team, but you're fighting to have the lead byline. You want your name at the top. Your promotion is at the expense of somebody else's. That's never been true here. And even most Fool writers do not get the opportunities I've been given.

And I have no idea who it was, but, like, three or four years ago; I had never been on a podcast and I think someone was sick, the podcast used to be, like, two internal Fool.com people. So, it would be Vin Shen and Dylan Lewis would do technology. And one of the two of them was sick and they called me. And as I've joked with you so many times, like, when a boss would call me, I would assume I was getting fired. And of course, called, and said, hey, would you think about appearing on a podcast? And then I actually started coming to the office, usually on my own dime, so I could do more podcasts, so I could be in the studio, so I could have that experience.

Then I was lucky enough that Chris Hill said, hey, do you want to do MarketFoolery? Now, that was during a snowstorm and I was the only available person and I feel like that contributed to it, but Chris says, no, Chris says, he was going to have me on anyway. And that changed my world, it changed how many people saw me, what my visibility was, not just outside the company but in the company, like, everyone knows Chris, everyone listens to MarketFoolery. So, when you get that, sort of, like, hey, you're in the club. And I honestly thought it was a one-time thing, when that became a regular thing, that was sort of like when I stopped feeling like I didn't work there. You know, when I stopped feeling like a contractor and just someone who was writing stories, but sort of wasn't part of the team. And I can't say thank you for that enough.

You know, this audience, you know, I can't tell you how many people have flagged me down in the Bahamas -- we used to do video before Fool Live, so it was a little easier to know what we look like -- who would just like be screaming, "Motley Fool! Motley Fool!" at some random place. And I recognize I'm a distinctive-looking person. That being said, it's been really, really exciting and fun. And as I say in the letter that's going out to my colleagues tomorrow night, I don't stop being a Fool just because I don't work here, I just won't be working here. And that was difficult, but sometimes we have to do difficult things.

And if you want to know what I'm doing next, you can follow me @worstideas. You don't have to, and I promise, keep listening to this podcast. Emily will have other people on, they'll be really good voices too, they'll be really interesting people, maybe she'll talk Joey Solitro into coming on for an episode, and who knows what will happen.

Emily, I know you had a few questions before we wrapped up here.

Flippen: Well, I just want to reiterate something, because I have not been the host of this Consumer Goods-focused podcast for very long. I came in at the beginning of 2020. And my experience on Motley Fool Live and on Industry Focus has been shaped by you, Dan. And when I got the news that you were moving on to greener pastures, as it be, that you were leaving us, I have to say I went through my little stages of grief here, because we have talked every single day since the pandemic began for hours, a lot of times on the weekends as well. I mean, quite literally, for hours. And you have become a defining aspect of my experience with The Motley Fool. You will be sorely missed.

But I want to reiterate to our listeners, A., follow Dan on Twitter or wherever else you can find him, he is @worstideas on Twitter right now. Follow him. Stay up-to-date on Dan's movements, you know, post-Motley Fool employee. But I do want to let you know, it's our intention, Dan, to the extent that you are free, and I know you live a very, very busy life, to have you back on whenever you want to be back on, to talk consumer goods with our listeners. You are a voice that will be sorely missed. We have great, great voices. We're going to continue to do Industry Focus: Consumer Goods with anybody and everybody who is willing, but that still extends to you, Dan, to the extent that you're free and you want to come on.

Kline: It happens every week, but I'm looking forward to doing this. And I'll finish my thoughts from before. It's great that I've made lots of great colleagues, but it's also worth noting that, you among them, the vast majority of my friends work at Motley Fool [laughs] and that is something I've never experienced any other place. Like, I cannot wait until there's no pandemic and I can fly to Alexandria. And sure, it'll be great to tape a podcast, but it'll also be fun to, like, go have a drink and have some dinner. And that extends a little bit to our audience. Like, there are a lot of people who are regular viewers or regular listeners that I'm emailing with. Like, I'm sharing, like, hey, here's where I'm going to be going on this day, like, feel free to grab me for a cup of coffee, that I expect to continue. And I appreciate The Motley Fool still allowing me to [laughs] pop-up on the platform --

Flippen: Are you kidding --

Kline: -- From time-to-time and I'm happy to do that. But look, this has absolutely changed my life, and there's no other way to say it. When I got here, sure, I had lots of weird careers. If I wanted to make money running businesses, I probably could do that, but I didn't particularly enjoy it. And I was a journalist, and my upward income ceiling was probably $80,000, and that was $80,000 always worried about getting laid off, which we've seen many of our friends in that space do. I made more than that my first year at Motley Fool. And the fact that you could make money doing work you were proud of, a lot of the things in journalism where they pay you well, is not the work [laughs] you could be proud of. So, you know, there's a lot of people to thank. And honestly, you'd be first on that list along with Anand Chokkavelu, who is not a name you would know as a Fool podcast listener, but he was my boss at Fool.com for four-and-a-half, five years, something like that. And he was, kind of, the one that, like, knew me well enough to know what would bother me. Like, if I wasn't appearing on an episode that week, he would be like, here's why and you're doing three next week. Because he would know, I would worry, and I'd be like, am I getting replaced, [laughs] am I ever going to be back on again? And that level of care is not common anywhere. So, to have that was important.

You know, Dylan Lewis, Nick Sciple, people who I've done shows with. I've actually done every single Motley Fool podcast. And I was trying to count how many different Industry Focus hosts I've been on with, but I have to have the record, it's got to be [laughs] there. Shannon Jones, Nick, Dylan, Sean O'Reilly, Sarah Priestley, Vin Shen, there are so many, so. You know, I don't want to drag this on with the audience, but all I can say is, thank you.

Flippen: And thank you, Dan, you have put countless hours that really would probably add up to weeks, if not months, of your life into these podcasts. We are all smarter, better, happier, richer, more Foolish because of it. So, from the bottom of our hearts, both mine and our listeners, thank you, Dan.

Kline: Thank you, all.

Flippen: And listeners, on that very sad note, [laughs] that does it for this episode of Industry Focus. As always, you can shoot us an email IndustryFocus@Fool.com, if you want to say anything about Dan. Obviously, follow him on Twitter, tweet at him, but you're also welcome to email it to IndustryFocus@Fool.com or tweet at us @MFIndustryFocus.

As always, people on the program may own companies discussed on the show, and The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against any stocks mentioned, so don't buy or sell anything based solely on what you hear.

Thanks to Tim Sparks for mixing today's episode. For Dan Kline, I'm Emily Flippen, thanks for listening and Fool on!