The apes have spoken at AMC Entertainment Holdings (AMC -1.76%). The country's top multiplex operator is inviting retail investors to submit questions online ahead of next week's earnings release. Management expects to respond to questions about strategic priorities, its financial position, and business operations.

With so much going on at AMC these days, you may be surprised to find that the most popular question asked so far is -- well -- about the dividend it suspended when the pandemic began. The most shared and upvoted question for AMC next week is if it has plans to bring back its quarterly payouts. We all know the answer, but let's save the theater chain some time by getting it out of the way.

Two people enjoying a movie at a theater while enjoying popcorn.

Image source: Getty Images.

Intent to distribute

Let's start with a brief history of AMC's dividend. The movie house operator was paying a quarterly disbursement of $0.20 a share dating back to 2014. After a rough 2019, it began 2020 by slashing its distributions by 85% to $0.03 a share in late February, weeks before pandemic orders shut its business down. It was the last round of pocket change its shareholders would receive. AMC eliminated the payouts entirely a few weeks later. 

In other words, when it became clear that the deficits of 2019 would linger into 2020, AMC dramatically reduced its payout rate. When the pandemic came around, it was game over for the cash-back experience. 

The red ink won't end when the COVID-19 crisis is vanquished. Analysts don't see a return to profitability until 2024 -- and a lot will have to happen for AMC to be in better shape coming out of what would be five consecutive years of losses than when it was at the beginning. We're at least three years away from a potential return of AMC's once generous dividend, and that's not even the worst part. 

The stock is much higher now than it was when it was last returning money to shareholders on a quarterly basis. The yields would be substantially lower, and that still isn't even the worst part. 

AMC Entertainment had 103.9 million shares outstanding in the fourth quarter of 2019, the last period in which it offered its regular quarterly dividend. The same AMC that was announcing a buyback in February of last year quickly reversed course, printing a ton of new shares to stay afloat. With 513.3 million shares outstanding, we're talking about a nearly fivefold increase. This matters when we're talking about dividends. If we were to return to pre-pandemic levels where AMC felt it could distribute $0.20 every three months for each of its 103.9 million shares, that quarterly rate would be just $0.04 a share with the higher share count today. At today's price, we're talking about a ho-hum 0.5% yield. Now that is the worst part.

If you're owning AMC for the payouts -- and willing to wait at least three years for a 0.5% dividend yield if the stock marches in place for the next few years -- you probably need a new hobby. The return of the dividend is the least of AMC's concerns right now. The real challenge is making it to 2024 without falling apart along the way, using any spare funds to think outside the box office if it wants to keep its projectors running.